Beautiful autumn weather, a truly great horse and five superb group races run in front of a large and enthusiastic Ascot crowd combined to make the first QIPCO British Champions’ Day a huge success. Yes, the day of unbroken warm sunshine was as lucky as finding a 100-1 winner, but British racing should be proud to have put on this remarkable showpiece that not even a disgracefully ill-timed introduction of new whip rules could destroy.
It will surprise no-one that there were many trials and tribulations that began from the moment the event was conceived. Not only did the shifting of races of this magnitude to slot into different fixtures at different racecourses at different places in the calendar cause a break with tradition of almost sacrilegious proportions. Not only was there a concern about stepping on the toes of our French and Irish counterparts who were quick to assert their respective rights within the European Pattern. There was also the vitally important matter of where the money would come from to fund this £3 million programme and the lingering, and entirely justified, concern that the Ascot festival was just too late in the year for a true championship event.
The success of the QIPCO British Champions’ Series should mark the dawning of a new era in British racing
Although the last point will continue to be raised, the inaugural British Champions’ Day as the culmination of the British Champions’ Series has come as close as it is possible to fill an enormous void in our racing year. It has shown that, while horseracing may never quite be able to fit a Formula 1-type format, it can follow a logical narrative that builds to a tremendous end-of-season climax.
The importance of this must be recognised as a key element in the modernising of our sport. Without accepting change, horseracing’s connection with the general public will continue to become increasingly tenuous. Without developing this most cherished pursuit of ours along lines to which ordinary people can relate, then racing will simply lose its identity and appeal as a national sport.
The success of the QIPCO British Champions’ Series should mark the dawning of a new era in British racing. We must recognize that racing will only increase its following if it is structured in such a way that emphasises the great performers and performances, both equine and human. In one respect racing is no different from any other sporting activity. It lives or dies on how well it projects the best it has to offer. Great horses and jockeys drive the sport’s marketing engine as they draw the public’s attention and fire its imagination.
Yet in these days of diminishing funds, there is the constant temptation to simply spread the decreasing pot of money over the same number of fixtures, to keep all racecourses in business come what may and to cling to an infrastructure that is simply not economically sustainable. The ‘top down’ approach may not seem fair – after all, all horses are expensive to maintain whether they are classic winners or claimers – but it is the only system that will keep British racing high in the public consciousness.
Pitting the best against the best, while continuing to attract the patronage of wealthy international owners, is the only recipe that will allow us to maintain the quality and reputation of our great racing festivals that provide the punctuation marks through British racing’s rich narrative.
As with any other sport, racing cannot be anything other than elitist if it is to hold the public’s interest. Competition that pushes the best to the top of the pile is part of its DNA. The stronger that competition, the stronger the sport will be and, paradoxically, the better off those will be who operate throughout the many layers that exist in racing’s pyramid.
These are the lessons that flow from that brilliant day at Ascot. They are lessons that we must absorb and build upon.