Since racing in the UK ended abruptly on March 17th there have been few enough opportunities to admire the sport’s largely-hidden professionals, but the past week has provided a solo virtuoso demonstration of the commentating skills of Ian Bartlett, writes Tony Stafford. Racing in France began again last Monday with no spectators, but deep in a Paris studio, the unflappable Bartlett has been a constant and supremely accurate dissembler of all things France Galop.
Starting with Longchamp early last Monday morning he commentated with hardly a pause for breath for ten races each, first at the principal Parisian venue; thence north a shade to Compiegne and down south to Toulouse. Over the next six days his all-seeing eyes took in two more Paris tracks, Saint-Cloud and two high-class jumping cards over the past weekend at Auteuil, in midweek stretching a bit further north to Chantilly. In between, his kingdom encompassed Marseille in the south, Angers in the west and Lyon and Vichy smack bang in the middle of the country.
In all Ian ran his forensic rule over 13 fixtures, 128 races and approaching 1,700 horses. Different owners’ horses often run in specific regions in a country which has a land mass more than double that of the UK, yet if there was ever a mis-identification – not that it was easily spotted – he would quickly and self-deprecatingly correct it. It is hard to imagine many of the regulars on the UK roster getting anywhere close to his accuracy of identification, pronunciation of the French names, which he conveys without any over-“Frenchiness” and indeed stamina. Ten-hour days have been the norm. I hate to think just what would have happened if one South African who often in the recent past has been let loose on the racing over there with his embarrassingly wide-of-the-mark attempts at the names, had been thrust into this extremely difficult task.
But Monsieur Bartlett has been amazing. And with a fair number of close finishes while I’ve been watching, I don’t think he’s got one of them wrong. He’s become a real jewel in the Sky Racing crown. I hope he gets a nice bonus for that first week’s magnificent endeavour. Maybe the exchanges should open a market on when he will finally end this marathon stint of clinical excellence. If the management of Sky Racing has any sense, it would block-book him for the next two weeks and then with full fanfare reveal him as the man to broadcast the first UK meeting at Newcastle on June 1 which will be on their screens.
The cast-off portion of the Racing TV deal which brought the Irish racing from the opposition onto their portfolio was looking in a sorry state with an original renewal date of no earlier than June 29th, but that happily has been brought forward by three weeks to begin a week after the resumption of UK racing.
The earliest track to get going on the Racing TV side is Kempton on June 2 and 3, two days of midweek all weather before a spectacular four days on the turf at Newmarket, the highlights of which are the 2,000 Guineas on Saturday June 6th and the 1,000 Guineas the following day. The second afternoon features the Coronation Cup, transferred from Epsom, and other important races also have unusual temporary locations in that first week. Newcastle will stage the Group 3 Pavilion Stakes, normally at Ascot, on June 4th, the third of its four days’ action and the Brigadier Gerard Stakes (Group 3) will be on June 7th at Haydock rather than Sandown. Lingfield, Chelmsford and Kempton all feature in the initial flurry, when Lingfield’s card on June 5th will include both the Derby and Oaks Trials.
I always love going to Haydock where there’s a choice of hotels within walking distance of the track. In the same way as Newcastle, with only the odd owner, one per horse eligible, there will therefore be ample accommodation for jockeys, trainers and stable staff.
Newmarket’s four days in a row, Thursday to Sunday, within the opening seven days is obviously sensible with so many likely participants - equine and human - being locally based and with a selection of potential hotels. I don’t know about you but I’m getting highly excited about the whole thing. I know I’m very much an optimist, but I believe that when the lockdown ease enters its next phase, there will be so much will for action in every area, that the recovery will come quicker than the many pessimistic voices (mostly with political points to make) suggest. Certainly at this stage, Royal Ascot with modifications will be run in its correct dates, June 16-20 and the Derby and Oaks early in July.
The few trainers I have managed to keep in touch with during the lockdown and those I’ve seen on television, as in an interview the other day with Roger Teal, suggest that in most cases, their stable routines have generally been little affected by the virus. Country areas have been far less susceptible to its spread than urban centres like London. They have found it possible to maintain social distancing rules within training on the gallops.
There is no question that numbers will continue to be the principal element in just how quickly certain restraints will be relinquished by the government. One factor which has stealthily been given increased importance is the concept of “R”, the number which expresses the rate at which infected individuals pass on their infection to others. Early in the virulent part of the disease, in mid-March when the numbers started going up, “R” was reckoned to be around 3. By the time the daily graph started to turn downwards the “R” number was agreed to be below 1.
Then all of a sudden in the middle of last week, some “expert” announced that “R” was increasing again. Yet this is contrary to most normally-accepted yardsticks. The numbers of people remaining in hospital have been falling every week for the past month; fatalities in all areas have been falling steadily. In the week ending April 12th, 6425 people died; the next five weekly totals have been 6207, 5573, 4791, 3409 and in the latest week 2781 with a single lowest day of 170 yesterday. Apart from one aberrant jump on Saturday to 468 from 346 a week earlier, every day – Monday to Monday, Tuesday to Tuesday, and so on over the past four weeks has shown a consistent drop in the number of fatalities, apart from that single ‘sore thumb’ total. That was almost corrected by yesterday’s lowest daily number for almost nine weeks.
Even care homes are now showing long-overdue reductions. The government has persisted in keeping to its June 1st date for resuming racing and it looks as though Premier League football will also be back at around the same time. The hunger is there and obviously racing can’t get going soon enough.
One reason for disquiet does remain. Matt Bisogno, this column’s editor in his role as the owner of geegeez.co.uk was previously a member and then for a while chair of the Horseracing Bettors Forum which, in consultation with the BHA and major bookmakers, formulated a Betting Charter. One of its main thrusts was to keep over-rounds per horse in markets on individual races to a manageable figure. During the week of French racing and the action on the limited number of US tracks that have been running, “industry” prices have been the rule rather than exception.
With no spectators in the foreseeable coming weeks, starting prices will need to be arrived at by some agreed method. The almost constant figure for each French and US race in this period has been at around 30%. In the US, there is rarely more than a dozen runners per race; in France fields of between 16 and 20 have admittedly been quite common since the resumption as Ian Bartlett will testify, in which case a 30% over-round would perhaps be fair enough.
But as one good friend of mine said the other day: “No wonder the bookies like the overseas racing: with those prices, it’s like having eight zeroes on a roulette wheel!” Let’s hope the HBF have that unacceptable number in its sights.