The turf

Racing can’t survive without crowds

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

We all have weeks when every win bet finishes second and every each-way comes home in fourth. You begin to feel as though the Fates have something against you personally, as with the American punter who had lost his job, his wife and his home. Call him Fred Jones. On a seaside racecourse he invests his last ten dollars on a Tote jackpot. All six horses come in, but as he approaches the pay window, joyfully brandishing his win ticket, a gust of wind whips it from his hand and blows it out to sea. Despairingly, he sinks to his knees and implores aloud: ‘Just what have I done to deserve this?’ At which point the thunder clouds part for a moment and a voice from above declares: ‘I really don’t know, Jones. It’s just that there’s something about you which pisses me off.’

I have just had a Fred Jones-ish week. An alarming message on Mrs Oakley’s laptop declared that it had been invaded by hackers and I let a honey-tongued bunch of swindlers scam me out of $900 by playing on the fear we non-technical folk have of having our bank accounts stripped via the internet. A visit from BT left our chaotic wifi worse than ever, the mower packed up halfway through the lawn and the dog ate my specs. Then came the coup de grâce: on the Sunday I failed to check the French racecards and see that James Fanshawe’s Audarya, one of this column’s Twelve to Follow, was contesting the Darley Prix Jean Romanet at Deauville. The Fanshawe filly stormed to victory in the hands of Ioritz Mendizabal at 33-1, with French punters getting 47-1 on the pari-mutuel, and I didn’t have a penny on her. That was the bit that really hurt.

Audarya had already won at 12-1 and the Twelve are doing well. At York Roger Varian’s Fujaira Prince won the Ebor Handicap at 11-2, Michael Dods’s Brunch (already a York winner at 7-1) took the Sky Bet Mile at 15-2 and John Gosden’s Enbihaar showed her class by landing the Lonsdale Cup as the 15-8 favourite. Anyone following the Twelve and putting a £10 level stake to win on their racecourse appearances is currently sitting on a profit of more than £500 (and that’s taking the English price on Audarya, not the 47-1).

The one note of sadness is that Mohaather, the lead horse of our Twelve and the star of the season’s best race so far, Goodwood’s Sussex Stakes, has had to be retired to stud duties after suffering a bone bruise and will not be seen on the racecourse again for Marcus Tregoning and his team. The powerfully athletic Mohaather won Group races all of the three years he was in training and possessed an electrifying burst of speed that made him a truly great miler. Marcus, once assistant to the legendary Dick Hern, was familiar with horses such as the great sprinter Darjur and the 2000 Guineas winner Nashwan, and he says of Mohaather: ‘I never saw one quicken like this horse could.’

We need such stars and we urgently need to have racegoers back watching horses in live action, a process hopefully starting with Doncaster’s St Leger meeting. Racing, conducted out in the open air, was lucky to be one of the first sports back in action after Covid-19 transformed our lives. But without crowds it can go on for only so long. The warning flags are fluttering. Racetracks are having to make permanent staff redundant — 19 at Newbury, 20 at Chester (which finishes racing this month and won’t start again until next May).

The jumping track at Newton Abbot, which lost the last three meetings last year to the weather, then saw its first eight fixtures in 2020 wiped out by Covid, is facing an operating loss this year of £300,000. The Grand National-winning owner Trevor Hemmings, an honourable mainstay of the winter sport who has horses with several trainers, is understandably selling off 50 of his horses. He is 85 and diabetic, so can’t risk leaving his Isle of Man home to watch them. He felt awkward about spending such sums on racing when staff in his enterprises were being furloughed.

It has not, however, done much for racing’s image that the period of running racing behind doors closed to the general public, with reduced prize money, has seen an intensification of the battle between the racecourses and the Horsemen’s Group (composed of owners, trainers, jockeys and stable staff) over prize-money levels, centred largely on the lack of transparency over how much the racecourses, deprived of paying customers, are still making from media rights (e.g. the streaming of pictures to betting shops and bookmaker websites and the licensing of pre-race data).

Of course we need to do better asap for the owners who provide the wherewithal for our sport. But as level-headed trainers Richard Hannon and Oliver Sherwood are pointing out, moaning about prize-money levels while the world is ravaged by Covid does come across as a trifle vulgar.

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