Tuesday, September 19, 2017
The action across Longines Irish Champions Weekend was excellent. Sadly, not enough people went to Leopardstown and the Curragh to see it.
As someone brought up by the Curragh it saddened me to read the track recorded an attendance of only 5,370 on Sunday, a long way short of the 7,000 safety limit that had been imposed.
In part, this reflects a wider problem for Irish Flat racing.
Jump racing in Ireland has always been more popular than its Flat counterpart. Why is that?
Historically, I think it's because jumpers were traditionally so much more affordable. People might have raised a young store for four or five years - they didn't mind doing that because they had their own bit of land, which so many people do in Ireland - and if the horse happened to win a point-to-point they would either be able to sell him for a decent amount or continue to race him themselves.
That all still applies to a degree.
Certainly it's true that with jumpers you are still more likely as an owner to have a nice surprise. Whereas on the Flat so many big races are plundered by Galileos or Dubawis, over jumps big races seem to be won by the offspring of an array of stallions.
Good horses can come from anywhere over jumps, be it a high-end stud or an old farm. That's how it has always been and, to a significant extent, how it remains. It sounds like a cliche, but it's also still true that someone in Ireland would always seem to know someone who has a horse. That isn't the case with Flat racing.
It is so much harder for a Flat horse from humble beginnings to end up contesting Classics. A horse by a stallion with a £2,000 covering fee is highly unlikely to win a Guineas or Derby. It's not impossible but it is highly improbable. The prospect of owning a top Flat horse is simply too distant for most people in Ireland.
When I was a young jockey I had to leave Ireland because one year after finishing second in the apprentices' championship I could hardly get a ride. I was picking up scraps. In Britain there is enough to go round for everyone. In Ireland, day in, day out, I don't believe that is the case.
It is possible Ireland as a country is too small to have so few people dominating.
That isn't to criticise those who do dominate - they are simply exceptionally good at what they do - but it has to have an effect. Look at football in Scotland. For years it was always either Celtic or Rangers who became champions. I'm not sure outside of Celtic and Rangers fans many others cared. Now that Celtic win it every year I'd guess even fewer care.
If I was running Irish racing I would definitely look at the entry system for Group races, which often seem to close too early. That discourages people from entering and makes it ever more likely those races will be farmed by the big boys.
However, maybe the problem with Irish racing is, all too often, the customer does not come first.
It appears the main reason for keeping so many major races at the Curragh during the building work has been to ensure those races do not leave the hallowed Curragh turf.
It was argued Leopardstown's 1m4f start is not in a position suitable for the Irish Derby. That's a lame excuse. Leopardstown still staged two 1m4f races on the first day of Champions Weekend. On top of that, no one could ever say Epsom's 1m4f start, which is immediately followed by a right-hand bend then left-hand bend, is ideal.
Whether this is fair or not, the Curragh saga has given the impression those who run Irish Flat racing are saying to racegoers: "We don't actually need you." It makes it appear racing is being run simply for the good of those taking part, not those who might want to watch.
Let me stress I am not knocking the Curragh. Indeed, hosting showpiece racedays is not fair on the Curragh in its current state. This is one of the finest racecourses in the world. Last Sunday it hosted some of the finest horses, but by putting up a ridiculously low crowd limit the sport was saying we would rather you didn't come to see those horses. The fact just 5,370 people turned up suggests racing's customers and fans took the hint.
When Ascot was being redeveloped they moved the royal meeting to the other end of the country. Royal Ascot at York was still great. During Longchamp's redevelopment the Arc has been transferred to Chantilly. It is still the Arc.
Had Leopardstown raced both days last weekend, there would have been people who might have flown over from Britain for the weekend. Plenty of those people would this year have been put off doing so because of the Curragh situation. The same will be true next year.
Trying to push Flat racing to the people of Ireland is hard at the best of times. That being the case, it feels like the sport is currently shooting itself in the foot.
There are times when people must think trainers are mad.
Plenty probably thought I was mad when I ran a filly called Romina in a 7f maiden first time out back in July. It wasn't to get her handicapped, that's for sure. On her third start she won a 1m4f maiden at Kempton on Wednesday. That first run led to the first win.
All trainers strive to have the backing of owner-breeders like Philippa Cooper, in whose Normandie Stud colours Romina races.
Her filly is a half-sister to top stayers like Duncan and Samuel, but she is exuberant. If we had run her in a 1m2f maiden on her first outing she would have been pulling and dragging the whole way due to freshness. For that reason, we found a contest over a much shorter trip, knowing that would require her to get behind the bit.
We've had a good few days, as since last Friday our two-year-olds Ragstone Road, Odyssa and Hollydaze have all won on their second starts.
I sometimes see comments along the lines of: "Richard Hughes isn't renowned for having first-time-out two-year-old winners." I'm never quite sure if that's a compliment or an insult.
I would like to think it's a compliment because I'm never in a rush with my horses. A career extends a long way beyond just the one race.
I wrote last week that I felt Harry Angel might struggle to shine on heavy ground at Haydock having won at the track on a firm surface. How wrong I was.
The Godolphin sprinter was magnificent.
You could say he benefited from having an easy lead but all credit to Adam Kirby, who rode a brilliant race. Even if he was allowed some rope up front, it didn't matter. This is an animal who looks unbeatable at the moment.
For a horse to be capable of equal brilliance on firm and heavy ground is extremely unusual. It's a rare quality and probably goes back to his dad, the wonderful stallion Dark Angel, whose progeny are tough and go in any sort of conditions.
Dad trained a smashing hurdler by Dark Angel called Guitar Pete. i remember him telling me then that this was one hell of a sire. Given Guitar Pete came from a €7,000 covering and Dark Angel this year stood for €65,000, I think Dessie was right.