I used to love the Festival as much as the next man, more so probably. When it was cancelled in 2001 because of Foot and Mouth, it was basically akin to telling a seven-year-old on Christmas Eve that Christmas had been cancelled. What’s changed? Well firstly because of my job (I’m a Flat handicapper and reporter at Timeform), I spend far more time on Flat racing and find that a more fascinating discipline. But the main problem is that National Hunt racing has an obsession with the Festival that is to the detriment of the rest of the season.
This season, big pre-Christmas targets like the Hennessy are being turned into Gold Cup trials fully four months before the big day. Both Diamond Harry and Denman, first and third in this season’s renewal will go straight to the Gold Cup, in fact of the first six home at Newbury that day, only the fourth, The Tother One has been seen subsequently. Races like the Lexus and Cotswold Chase have come and gone, as will the AON and Irish Hennessy this weekend and all have been poorer for the absence of such names. It’s not like this is unique problem with staying chasers. No sooner had Menorah confirmed himself as a serious Champion Hurdle contender with wins in the Greatwood and International Hurdles at Cheltenham’s big winter meetings, the cotton wool was being applied and races like the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial, Welsh Champion Hurdle and Kingwell were all off the agenda with connections favouring a trip straight back to Cheltenham.
Big Buck’s’ (I’ve no idea if that is grammatically correct!) season has been perhaps the most frustrating. Two canters around Newbury and victories over Duc de Regniere and Lough Derg have told us little about him. How good a race could the Cleeve have been had Big Buck’s attempted to concede his Grade 1 penalty to Grands Crus?
With so many of the contenders wrapped up in cotton wool it’s giving us little new to talk about, forums are rehashing the same tired arguments and we're still six weeks from getting any answers. Features in pullouts in the media tell us that these horses are bouncing and better than ever. Run the damn things then! Sadly I don’t really have a solution to a problem that has crept up on us over the last few seasons. Whilst the top horses aren’t owned by billionaire Arabs, the might of a handful of big stables fighting out for virtually all the big prizes means that most of the top horses are owned by the same faces, none of whom are short of a few bob, and prize money isn’t a factor at this level. Experiments like the Betfair Million and the Order Of Merit had only minor short term success, in fact, despite it’s good intentions, the Order Of Merit in reality became more an Order of Toughness and Durability.
I don’t want this to be a tired and predictable ‘Jump racing is boring, Flat racing is great’ piece as it’s certainly not the way I see racing, but I do think Flat racing currently enjoys an advantage in the way it’s season pans out. I’m doing my best here not to use that word ‘narrative.’ Throughout the turf season there is the build up to the Guineas, the Guineas itself, quickly onto Derby Trials and then the Derby, Royal Ascot, The July Meeting, Glorious Goodwood, York , the St Leger and abroad we have the Arc and Breeders’ Cup meetings. Of course too, in 2011, comes the revamped Champions’ Day meeting. In between all those dates there’s a plethora of busy weekends that feature competitive and high quality big-field handicaps and pattern races.
I remain with an open mind as to how the new Champions Day is going to pan out. I certainly can’t say I am worried about the long term future of the breed because of the switch of a ten-furlong Group 1 race to a track with a bend, equally the Middle Park on the same card as the Dewhurst doesn’t strike me as an unsurmountable issue. I just hope that we don’t end up with a situation where there is an attempt to oversignify events from that weekend. The meeting won’t be any less of a success should the winner of either the QEII or Champion Stakes be deemed inferior to that of say, the Sussex or Juddmonte International winner.
Still, no sooner will we have Cheltenham behind us that we can look forward to the Lincoln for which the entries came out today. I like having a go at these races ante-post nowadays as so few unexposed, improving types get in and it’s pretty easy to work out where the cut off point is likely to come. I may post a few thoughts once we see what the weights are.