There can be no doubt that events of the last few days have put the sport of horse racing in a very difficult position and there is every chance that things could get worse before they get better.
On the face of it, the timing of that shocking Gordon Elliott photo and the subsequent video, just a couple of weeks before the sport’s showpiece event of the entire year, couldn’t be any worse but that has been countered to some extent by the swift BHA response on Monday.
Clearly, it would have been a major PR issue for the sport if Elliott had been allowed to have runners and most likely winners at the Cheltenham Festival and, quite obviously, there will still be negative connotations should any horse that has, up to now, been trained by him but it was imperative that Elliott could not be allowed to have runners in his name on the biggest stage of all given the magnitude of its potential impact on the sport.
On the back of the BHA’s decision, Cheveley Park on Tuesday announced that they had decided to take their eight horses in Elliott’s care away and disperse them between Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins.
Elliott’s loss is Henry de Bromhead’s gain, for it is he that has inherited Cheveley Park’s flagship horse, Envoi Allen. The losers, of course, are all the staff who work for Elliott and they can’t be forgotten in this.
Horses like Envoi Allen will be the star attractions at Prestbury Park in a couple of weeks and that in itself is an opportunity for the sport to move onto the front foot and promote all that is good within it, and there is plenty to promote.
That is important because, as has been said more than once this week already, the sport of horse racing operates under an unwritten license from the public that it gives the horse a fair deal, whether that be in life or death.
ITV have led the way in many respects when it comes to delving deep into grass roots operations and taking the audience to places it has never been before, all of which serves magnificently to highlight the dedication and love that people who work in the industry have towards the horses in their care.
Now, more than ever, there is a clear need for everyone within the sport, not just the terrestrial broadcaster, to redouble their efforts in demonstrating that instances like this will not be tolerated whilst also seizing on any opportunity to raise awareness of some of the deeper relationships that exist inside every stable throughout the land.
The public don’t know that horses live like royalty, they don’t know about the bond that exists between the horse and the stable lad/lass, they don’t know about the opportunities that exist for horses that have come to the end of their racing career. They only see or hear the ending and this has to be addressed on a grander scale.
While there are always going to be human interest stories, especially at a big festival like Cheltenham, racing simply has to demonstrate to the wider public that the animal is the true hero of this sport and that is valued above everything else.
The world will be watching the Cheltenham Festival so the sport cannot afford any slip-ups. Whip bans and, even worse, fatalities, will be seized upon by those that are determined to see the end of jump racing as we know it.
Troubled Times For One Of The Big All-Weather Prizes
The Winter Derby really ought to be one of the highlights of the all-weather season but a set of circumstances have arisen that could sustain long-term damage on the Betway-sponsored showpiece.
I went into this year’s race underwhelmed by the line-up and nothing that happened on the track changed that opinion.
Forest Of Dean is by no means short on ability but he is the joint lowest-rated horse to win the race since 2014 and was the beneficiary of an extremely well-judged ride which was very much required given he had already been beaten by runner-up Felix twice this winter.
The average official rating for a Group 3 contest would be in the 110-115 band but only four of the last ten Winter Derby winners fall into that rating bracket.
Small field sizes are undoubtedly a major contributor to the problem. The last three renewals have attracted field sizes of 5,7 and 7.
The emergence in lucrative international prizes is undoubtedly a contributor to that, with the Saudi Cup a perfect example. One-time ante-post Winter Derby favourite Bangkok earned a whopping £291,000 for finishing eighth in Saudi Cup while Forest Of Dean picked up just over £30k for his Lingfield heroics.
Clearly there are challenges if this race is going to hold its own in an increasingly competitive market place.
Small fields aren’t great for punters but they are also inflicting potentially lasting damage on people’s perception of the race.
Forest Of Dean’s finishing speed on Saturday was 109.77% of the overall race time which means they went pretty steady before the tempo lifted significantly around three furlongs out, as so many races around Lingfield do. Small fields inevitably lead to tactical contests that place more emphasis on speed, which is why the race is attracting very few of the good horses that stay a mile and a half.
Most middle-distance performers wouldn’t have the speed to cope with the demands of this race, a point highlighted by Johnny Drama who was the highest rated runner in Saturday’s contest. He stays a mile and a half well, indeed that looks his optimum trip, but that proved his undoing on Saturday because he was left for dead by speedier rivals.
Good quality milers that would have the ideal profile for a Winter Derby are generally kept back for a turf campaign so the pool of horses that this race ought to appeal to is getting smaller by the year and that spells trouble.
The Winter Derby is struggling to maintain its reputation as one of the biggest Flat races outside of the regular season and if that continues to be the case then it won’t be able to hold onto its Group 3 status for much longer.