When asked to explain their connection to the sport, most racing fans would use words such as ‘passion’ or ‘emotion’ or ‘excitement’. While some of those things reside in me, they do not come close to explaining my feelings.
For whatever reason, I feel a visceral urge that the sport represents something in life which should be cherished and defended. I consider that the union of horse and rider in athletic competition can elevate both by the commitment to excellence. And I do not want this ever to be taken away from society.
This stance naturally has led me into conflict with some of those who I feel represent a threat to this ideal – including those who want to take away the use of the whip, remove the weight-for-age allowance or pervert the Pattern.
To understand the proper ethos of Flat racing, you must be able to grasp the importance of all three. We are seeking to identify the fastest, strongest and soundest thoroughbreds in order to advance the breed. Nowadays, some think this is absurdly purist; I say it is fundamental.
When the sport first announced the Racing For Change initiative, then latterly the British Champions’ Series, I was fearful of the consequences. There is nothing wrong with change, of course, but it depends on what the impetus for that change is predicated upon.
If it has commercial imperative, I can bring myself to accept that which economic reality dictates. But not if it means denaturing the sport, selling out its core values for the sake of appearances. So, I initially considered that British Champions’ Day at Ascot would be the nadir of my racing experience. It turned out to be almost the zenith.
It wasn’t perfect but it worked. And the show which accompanied it worked too. I take my hat off to the Champions’ Series Chief Executive Rod Street and his colleagues. Every time I think the repercussions of his brand of modernity will offend my sense of propriety, I am surprised.
It helped that Champions’ Day saw the belated innovation of sectional times over television pictures. I hope you got something out of these. I tried my best to explain their utility and fascination during the Racing UK broadcast I shared with Nick Luck and Graham Cunningham.
I still think the organisers need to provide more context for the races
When Frankel was asked to pick up at the three-furlong pole in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, he ran a faster furlong than any of those achieved by Deacon Blues in winning the British Champions Sprint. There are many other ways to appraise his performance which I won’t get into here because of space.
But the sectionals were not just a consolation. The rest of the event really seemed to have meaning, to resonate with the crowd at Ascot and the viewing audience on the two satellite channels and the BBC. The reception which Frankel received was awesome; the sight of humans exulting the efforts of a horse is exactly what I am referring to in the introduction.
I still think the organisers need to provide more context for the races – that ‘narrative’ word which is so much derided because it now has connotations of PR spin. Pleasingly, the winners of the series are determined by official handicap marks, so why not display these on a board beforehand and explain to the people exactly what they mean and how they are determined?
I wrote about this last month. Handicapping now badly needs demystifying, if these figures are going to determine championships into which the public is supposed to invest attention. Many of those at Ascot would have no clue how many pounds make five lengths over a mile, or what indeed the weight-for-age allowance is.
If you really want to sell the sport, you have to sell the language of numbers which is inherent to it. Handicapping was important on the day that racing thoroughbreds was first considered a fruitful pastime. It is no less important now. It needs to be sold and its nuances explained, even to those who are day-to-day followers of the sport.
The only downside of Champions’ Day was the ban given to Christophe Soumillon under the misguided and shabbily constructed new whip rules after his victory on Cirrus Des Aigles in the Champion Stakes. But this was not a function of the event and should be considered a separate entity to it.
Champions’ Day was only a start and it is imperative that it can attract twice the attendance of 26,749 in the years ahead. But it was a great start and a resounding victory for those behind it – including the BHA and its Chairman Paul Roy.