A Question Of Timing
We are, once again, at the time of year when the racing program is controlled as much by the weather than by the BHA Planning Department.
The recent cold spell has resulted in a spate of abandonments as are result of sub zero temperatures.
In many cases the decision not to race is clear cut, however on other occasions the decision is not so clear cut and we face the dilemma of Clerks Of The Course playing a game of brinkmanship.
Now it is fully understandable that a course be given every chance to race, however there also needs to be a point by which time a final decision to race has to be made.
Making a final decision half an hour or an hour before the start of racing is unfair on racegoers, who seem to be the last stakeholder considered when it comes to making the decision to race.
Why should racegoers be expected to make sometimes long journeys to the course only to find it is called off at the last minute?
If a racegoer has already bought their ticket should they still take the risk and travel to the course? If they do and racing is off then they have wasted their journey, if they don’t go and racing goes ahead they loose their, not insignificant, admission costs. Either way the racegoer is the loser.
However there was a very telling comment during yesterdays deliberations at Cheltenham.
Cheltenham’s PR manager went on BBC Radio Five Live at 10:11 and made a comment along the lines that if racing was called off then racegoers could still come along and use the bars. That, to me, says it all.
We also have the vexed issue of consistency of information when these protracted inspections take place and in the last week the differences have been well highlighted.
Last Monday was the Welsh National meeting at Chepstow. Clerk of the course Tim Long was open and frank throughout the day, telling the issues exactly as they were. Even going into the final inspection he openly said it was “touch and go”.
Racing did go ahead and it was a late decision, however with the honesty and openness those thinking of going racing were making an informed decision as to whether to set off or not. Having said that the decision was still made far too late.
Now move forward five days and Cheltenham. All the pronouncements coming from the course were positive, nothing negative.
Yet those who were at the course were almost universally of the opinion that it was more likely racing would not go ahead.
This belief was even reflected by the Betfair odds.
As it happened racing went ahead, however it was a very close decision and the overly optimistic pronouncements were not a true reflection of the real situation.
There are also questions being asked about the pressures being applied to ensure racing went ahead. Especially amongst the jockeys.
At 11:00 a significant number of jockeys were expressing concerns about the safety of the track yet we are told at 11:45 there had been a straw poll in the weighing room and only two riders had expressed dissent regarding racing going ahead.
There was no significant change in the ground conditions in those 45 minutes.
So why the volte-face from the jockeys?
Unsurprisingly none were prepared to say anything “on the record” so we are left to form our own conclusions.
After the first race further concerns were expressed about ground conditions and a further inspection was held, delaying proceedings and adding to the uncertainty.
In the end racing went ahead but with 30 non-runners.
Is what happened at Cheltenham on Saturday good for the image of racing?
I would suggest not.
Racing wants to attract new racegoers – how will we attract them if we have uncertainty like we have had the past few days? With racegoers not knowing if racing is going to go ahead or not?
Is “put racing on at all costs if possible” the right ethos?
If racegoers are messed about like this they will turn their backs on the sport. Treating racegoers with contempt will only serve to alienate them.
We almost had a third “will it, won’t it” scenario today with a second inspection called at Sandown at 10:00. At least on this occasion the decision was made at that time and racing was called off.
Now I think three hours before the first race is a good time to make a final call as to whether a meeting goes ahead.
If a course is not fit to race three hours before the first race it should be called off. Yes there will be some occasions when a meeting is called off when it may have been raceable come the off time of the opening race.
There is a more fundamental issue and that is who makes the decision to race. Should it be left to the courses who, let’s face it, have a vested financial interest in racing going ahead?
How big a say should the jockeys have, yes they are the ones who will be riding but they also have a vested financial interest in the meeting going ahead – no rides, no pay.
I have said this many times before but I believe the decision as to whether a race meeting goes ahead should be taken away from the courses and be put in the hands of an independent team under the auspices of the BHA.
By all means take soundings from the courses, jockeys, trainers and owners but also consider the impact on the racegoers as well. However the key aspect is the decision should not take into account the financial impact of cancellation but should be wholly on safety grounds.
A few more comments on the issue of cancellations.
There are some who believe more effort should be made to run a meeting like Cheltanham on a Bank Holiday than a low grade midweek meeting at somewhere Plumpton.
A course is either raceable or it isn’t – the quality of racing is irrelevant.
A prime example of a meeting being run for financial expediency was the Plumpton meeting where Tony McCoy rode his 3,000th winner.
Conditions were atrocious that day – can the BHA and officials at Plumpton put their hands on their hearts and say the meeting would still have gone ahead had McCoy’s landmark not been looming. I would suggest not.
One final observation - when there are a spate of abandonments why do the BHA feel compelled to add additional all-weather fixtures?
Invariably the cancelled meetings are turf national-hunt cards. By replacing them with all-weather fixtures there is not a “like-for-like” replacement. So what is the motive.
Who, apart from the bookmakers, do these low grade meetings help?
They don’t help the horses, trainers or jockeys who are missing out as a result of the Cancelled meeting.
They are unlikely to attract the same racegoers as the Cancelled meetings.