A Symmetrical Year
In terms of racing there has been a certain symmetry to 2009.
The year began with the racing program being decimated by bad weather and the year is ending the same way.
Both the flat and National Hunt scenes have been dominated, literally, by "stars".
We have seen the 25th anniversary of all-weather racing in the UK and continued decline of racing coverage on the BBC.
Plus the sport is having to face the realisation of the wider economic slump.
It is ironic with all the talk of global warming, racing has been badly hit by freezing conditions in 2009. January and February saw the loss of 52 meetings, whilst December is also seeing a spate of weather related cancellations.
Racing authorities responded to the spate of cancellations by scheduling extra all weather meetings, mainly – or is that exclusively – at the behest of the bookmakers, who seem to be champions of the "sandpit racing". Presumably because it is fodder for the mug punters.
Indeed the bookmakers have again been flexing their muscles in 2009. To the extent one seriously has to ask who actually runs racing – is it the BHA or is it the bookmakers? One sometimes wonders.
Hindsight is wonderful but I must confess if I could turn the clock back to 1961 when betting offices were “legitimised” I would fight the bill tooth and nail. Looking back I do not believe the bookmaking industry has been good for racing and racing would have been better served has we had a Tote monopoly with a fixed percentage going back into the sport. With such provision the sport would, I believe, be in a better financial situation than it currently is.
We are now faced with the situation where the industry basically has to go “cap in hand” to the Levey negotiations to try and get money from the bookmakers, most of whom are now based offshore.
Indeed the Levy is archaic. With racing accounting for only a small percentage of bookmakers turnover it seems incongruous the industry should be treated as a special case. If racing receives a levy then why shouldn’t football, rugby, tennis, golf or cricket?
On the track we have been treated to two super stars, one in either code. This year it is impossible to claim the two champions are not "stars" - as it was in their names. In the yellow corner, for the flat team, we have Sea The Stars and for National Hunt, in the green and yellow corner, we have Kauto Star.
John Oxx’s Sea The Stars, the undisputed star of the flat in 2009. He overcame a training setback to win the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket.
The Derby was the next target, a race he approached with doubts about his stamina. As he demonstrated his fantastic turn of foot The Derby was won without even breaking into a sweat. His detractors claimed he was lucky in the race was run to suit him.
Next up was the Coral Eclipse at Sandown, down to 1¼ miles but taking on his elders for the first time. This time he had to work hard for victory but victorious he was beating fellow three-year-old Rip Van Winkle by a length, with their elders four lengths plus in arrears.
Then the Juddmonte at York, only three rivals all from the O’Brien yard with Mastercraftsman his only serious rival. Riding a waiting race jockey Mick Kinane asked for an effort a furlong out and Sea The Stars eased into the lead for another length victory.
It was back to home territory in September as he lined up in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. Once again his main challengers came from the O’Brien yard and although O’Brien runners took 2nd, 3rd and 4th places the winner was invariably Sea The Stars with a comfortable 2½ length victory.
His swan song was in, arguably, Europe’s greatest middle distance race the Prix De l’Arc De Triomphe at Longchamp. Two furlongs out it looked as though he was going to blot his copy book. However his veteran rider Mick Kinane did not panic and when a gap appeared he weaved his way through, like a hot knife through butter.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I was privileged to be in Paris that afternoon. I have never seen or felt such raw emotion at a racetrack. Standing in the press viewing area, surrounded by wizened and hardened hacks, I wasn’t the only one to have tears running down my cheeks.
The brilliant horse, having achieved the unique Guineas / Derby / Arc treble has been retired to stud. Hopefully next year he will cover Zarkava , the 2008 Arc winner.
His rider Mick Kinane also decided to hang up his boots – not sure if he is off to stud as well – after a brilliant career and a season to remember he deserves to.
Also on the flat Ryan Moore was, once again, champion jockey.
Kieran Fallon finally returned to the saddle to show what a good rider he can be and if he can put his demons behind him, he could be the one to give Moore most to worry about next season.
On the jumps it was the other star, Kauto Star who has taken most of the plaudits.
Having won last years King George for the third time his 2009 debut was in the Blue Riband Cheltenham Gold Cup, where he faced stablemate Denman (returning after a heart scare) and his old rival Exotic Dancer.
The race was over three from home when he hit the front and powered clear to record a 13 length victory over Denman with Exotic Dancer a further 2½ lengths back in third. In winning the race he became the first horse to regain the Gold Cup.
After his summer break her returned to Haydock for the Betfair Chase, where last year he unseated Sam Thomas at the last. He put in a clear round this year but his backers had a fright as Imperial Commander made him fight all the way to the line, with many observers thinking the champion had been beaten. After what seemed an eon Kauto Star was eventually awarded the race by a nose.
His final appearance this year was his attempt to win a fourth consecutive King George. Lining up against a high class field he put in what can only be described as the perfect performance.
His jumping was sublime and foot perfect. Taking the lead turning for home the judge needed binoculars, not a camera, to determine the winning distance as he came home 36 lengths clear of his rivals.
Of course his stablemate Denman cannot be ignored. Coming back from his heart scare he had an easy introduction back, coming second to Madison du Berlais at Kempton.
Next up was the Gold Cup, where he was arguably still not fully fit, and his second to Kauto Star.
He reappeared quickly in the Totepool Bowl at Aintree where he took a crashing fall two out. The screens went up and he was taken away in a horse ambulance but luckily the worse he suffered was a bad cut. The news was not so good for Exotic Dancer, runner-up in the contest, who sadly collapsed and died in the stables after the race, highlighting the darker side of our sport.
After a summer break Denman was back at Newbury for the Hennessy. Burdened with a top weight of 11st 12lbs he was giving 17lbs plus to his rivals.
Despite this welter burden he came home a convincing 3½ length winner.
Elsewhere Venetia Williams became only the second woman to train a Grand National winner as 100/1 outsider Mon Mome took the Aintree showpiece.
2009 also saw the 25th anniversary of all-weather racing, for some a great racing format and the saviour of winter racing, to others the spawn of the devil.
It was mixed news for racecourses in 2009. Attendances seemed to buck the recession with a slight year on year rise on 2008.
January saw the demise of the ill-fated Great Leighs, a course seemingly fated from the outset, late opening and seemingly dragged down by poor management.
By contrast the UK’s newest course Ffos Las opened to near universal acclaim. Its well drained racing surface attracting praise from some of the toughest critics – the top trainers.
Mixed news for those who rely of terrestrial for the television coverage. The BBC announcing they are greatly reducing their 2010 coverage on television.
BBC Radio has fared little better, with their plumbing the depths and turning racing coverage, literally, into a pantomime farce on the Friday of Royal Ascot.
A new agreement has been reached with Channel Four, however at a cost to racing, where the industry is paying C4 to cover the sport – another case of the tail wagging the dog?
As in the real world the recession has hit the sport. The Levy being reduced with a consequential drop in prize money. Even the top owners are cutting back, some reducing their strings, others leaving the sport entirely.
It will be interesting to see what impact the financial crisis in Dubai has on the Arab involvement in the sport. They are saying the funding issues are separate and unconnected. However I fail to see how, morally, the rulers of Dubai can continue to inject such huge funds into the sport when their country is verging on bankruptcy.
All in all 2009 has been an eventful year – I wonder what 2010 has in store for us?