Monday, July 25, 2016
In terms of what happened on the track, we had a good time at Lingfield last Saturday night, yet we didn't really go home too happy. The reason for that is the experience we had while there and some of the things we saw.
One thing I want to stress is I am not trying to single out Lingfield or its owners for criticism. What happened there seven days ago could have happened at many other racecourses. I'm writing about Lingfield because we were at Lingfield and were very concerned by the events we witnessed.
For 20 years I spent most of my time on Britain's racecourses cocooned inside weighing rooms. If I was not riding the only meetings I ever went to were the Cheltenham and Leopardstown Christmas festivals. At those jumps fixtures the only folk you come across are proper racing people who love the sport and have paid to attend because of the sport.
Lingfield last Saturday was nothing like that. There were hardly any of those proper racing people. Knowing what I know now I'm hardly surprised.
For the second consecutive day we were lucky enough to land a double thanks to Dltripleseven and One Big Surprise. After I saddled the first of those horses, which was also our opening runner of the night, my wife, Lizzie, and I went down the track to watch the race live from the grandstand.
All we saw was a sea of people carrying pints of beer. As the horses were going down to post none of those on the lawns seemed in any way bothered about looking at the horses. It was the same before that race and all the others. Very few of Lingfield's customers made the effort to see the horses in the paddock. Lots of the racegoers might as well have been at a disco in a field.
Just before the race was due to start we noticed on the big screen that our horse was misbehaving, so we turned on our heels and started heading in that direction. It was then we saw a fight taking place. It was not the first we would see.
After Dltripleseven had won we were taken to the room where winning connections are given a glass of bubbly to celebrate. However, before we got there we were confronted by another fight. This one was much worse. We witnessed a man being knocked clean out after he fell off the wall where he had been standing when hit. He crashed to the ground like a block of meat and ended up lying there, bleeding from his ear. It was horrible and ruined our evening.
This was one of Lingfield's regular Saturday music nights. I understand why so many racecourses now stage them. They bring in a big crowd and presumably deliver a big profit. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. That said, if plenty of money was being made you wouldn't have guessed so from the prize-money on offer. For our race the winner's reward was around £2,500 and for none of the races was the first prize as much as £4,000.
On the drive home it was obvious Lizzie had been troubled by what she had seen. She was adamant she would never go to a similar meeting again. I could understand her point of view. As an example, our friend, Joe Stevens, is 94 years old and had to watch the racing from the weighing room because he couldn't possibly face the mayhem and havoc that was taking place in the public areas.
When I was riding I never realised how bad things have become on some of our racecourses. All too often we now read of arrests on track or people being hurt after fights. We have now seen two of those fights in person.
The people we saw at Lingfield had not an ounce of interest in racing and I'm sure they will have gone home no more interested. Sadly, anyone who did go along with an interest in the sport would not have wanted to go back.
As I said, I'm not in any way saying this is just Lingfield's fault or Lingfield's problem. But for racing I do think it is a problem and I think we need to tackle it.
The idea put forward that Ascot could host Qipco British Champions Day on the racecourse's hurdles track is an interesting one. In fact, it's something I have suggested in the past. Having said that, it should only be used as a solution of last resort.
When I rode at the royal meeting jockeys often used to run across the hurdles track in order to get to where helicopters waited for us in the middle of the course. What we could tell - and what anyone could tell with their own eyes - is that during the summer Ascot's Flat and jumps tracks look very different.
Whereas the Flat track would, as you'd expect, be lush and green, the jumps track would be brown and tight. The difference between the two was simply one had been regularly watered, the other had not. Visually, those two tracks, positioned side by side, provide the best possible example of what watering does.
Should Ascot this year choose to run the Qipco Champion Stakes on the hurdles course, Chris Stickels might have to reposition the start slightly. However, there would be nothing wrong with the track itself. I got to know it when I was riding over hurdles and can say it does not ride a great deal sharper than the Flat course on its outer. A width of only around seven or eight metres of the hurdles course would need to be used, and as they race on it two weeks later for Ascot's first jumps meeting of the season it would be in excellent condition.
Having said that, although the hurdles course would be perfectly suitable for a Group 1 Flat race I really do think it should only be an insurance option if the Flat track proper appears to be in danger of being waterlogged.
We're talking about a race meeting that is staged in the middle of October. A fixture taking place that late in the season really ought to take place on soft ground. There are fast ground horses, who deserve to get their chance in the summer, and easy ground horses, who deserve to get their chance in the autumn.
There is nothing wrong with soft ground. Royal Ascot was this year largely staged in testing conditions. It wasn't what we're used to but there was nothing bad about it.
The only issue was we were racing on soft ground in the middle of summer. That made it seem strange and wrong. There is nothing strange or wrong about racing on soft ground in the middle of October.
If you have a horse who needs fast ground you should by the autumn be thinking about going to the Breeders' Cup, Japan, Hong Kong or Dubai. You certainly shouldn't be expecting anything other than easy ground at Ascot.
They regularly run the Arc in soft ground and no one bats an eyelid. We shouldn't worry about Qipco British Champions Day being held on that sort of ground, either.
Josephine Gordon has been one of this Flat season's rising stars and she certainly impressed me when winning on Dltripleseven.
She was brave, tough and persevered on a quirky devil of a horse.
I had explained to her that once he hit the front he would be twice as gawky as usual. She listened. I could tell from watching her up the straight that although she was pushing she was only really playing with him. She was going through the motions and doing a bit of a Kieren Fallon, rowing away without actually being off the bridle.
Josephine will continue to be in action every day of the week for as long as she wants. She is a real talent and, granted the support she deserves to receive, will soon enough be taking part in the best races.
I feel a bit sorry for Channel 4.
The news Francesca Cumani has been appointed to the ITV team was a reminder Channel 4 Racing is in its final furlong. That's partly because ratings have been so disappointing. Personally, I don't believe those ratings have been low because of the programmes or the people who work on them.
I remember when I was young looking forward to watching the Saturday afternoon racing on the BBC or Channel 4. That's because those channels were the only means of watching British racing. We didn't have At The Races or Racing UK. All you got was what you saw on terrestrial television.
Now it's altogether different. Every racing household will constantly have either channel 415 or 432 on the screen. That has not helped Channel 4. When you can't have something, or as much of it as you would like, you always want more. In Hong Kong they only race twice a week and the fans there are absolutely mad for it.
It used to be the same with football back in the day when you only saw the FA Cup Final and games featuring the national team. That made the Cup Final something really special. Nowadays it doesn't seem quite so much of an event.
I'm not sure there's a solution but I do think the ready availability of racing on TV is a reason why fewer and fewer people have wanted to watch it on Channel 4.