When I became a racing journalist in 1963, I was very conscious of the fact that I was becoming involved with two very different sports. One was Flat racing, conducted between late March and early November, and the other was National Hunt racing, which ran between August and April. If I had needed confirmation that they were different, the fact that the former was regulated by the Jockey Club and the latter by the National Hunt Committee established it beyond doubt.
It made perfect sense that there were separate regulatory bodies for two sports so fundamentally different that one required competitors to face obstacles in the course of their journey while the other did not. Flat racing was a totally professional sport, allied to a significant breeding industry, while National Hunt racing still included a large amateur element, much of it from a farming, hunting and point-to-point background.
There was obviously some crossover, in that a minority of horses competed under both rules, a minority of owners and trainers were involved in both spheres, and there were a few – a very few – jockeys who plied their trade in both. Some members of the Jockey Club were also members of the National Hunt Committee, but among them it was a rare one who gave a significant commitment to both Flat and jumping.
‘The illegitimate sport’
That had been the situation since the 1860s, when the growth of what was familiarly known as ‘the illegitimate sport’ resulted in the formation of the National Hunt Committee, and the arrangement stood the test of time for just over a century. In 1969 it was ended. Someone, applying false logic, determined that in the final analysis all racing was racing, so that one regulatory body should suffice; the National Hunt Committee disappeared, subsumed by the Jockey Club.
Of course, there have been a few more changes since that one. Now we have a Jockey Club which has no regulatory powers and has been transformed into an estate management company, specialising in the ownership of racecourses. Governance of the twin sports passed first to the Horseracing Regulatory Authority, then the British Horseracing Board (or was it the other way around?), and most recently, in 2007, to the British Horseracing Authority.
Jump racing is first and foremost about entertainment; the Flat is that and a whole lot more
Among the other significant changes to the status quo I’ve seen are the arrivals of Sunday racing and all-weather racing, and an end to those traditional seasons. There is racing of some sort scheduled on every day of the year apart from Good Friday, Christmas Day and the couple of days before, and both sports have a 12-month season without a break.
The Flat season operates for the full calendar year, beginning on January 1 and ending on December 31, despite the fact that the BHA now chooses to disregard large chunks of it in determining the championships for trainers and jockeys. The insanity of that decision has been well illustrated by the facts that in one year Dettori was proclaimed champion although Fallon had ridden more winners, and in another Sanders and Spencer dead-heated for the title, although Sanders was the true winner by a wide margin.
I’m never quite sure now when the National Hunt season begins and ends, but I do know that the new one starts a day after the arbitrary date set for the conclusion of the old one. In truth it scarcely matters what date is chosen and there may well be a case for switching to a January 1-December 31 season; wouldn’t the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day provide an appropriate climax to the campaign?
But you can bet your life that that’s one thing that won’t be changed. National Hunt racing has proved immune to the folk from Racing For Change, who clearly side with my view that it is a different sport, because they have left it alone, concentrating their attention on the Flat.
While they have been so eager to revamp the Flat racing scene, the modernisers have decided that jump racing is not in need of change. And it is easy to understand why. It is still essentially the same sport that I described when referring to the scenario of half a century ago. It still features a significant amateur element and remains closely allied to farming, hunting and point-to-point racing. It is a country pursuit, chiefly involving those brought up in the country, where horses may still be seen. And it is a relatively parochial one, of little or no importance anywhere aside from Britain, Ireland and France.
Global appeal of the Flat
It is a very different sport from Flat racing, which has global appeal, is intensely competitive in consequence and is linked to a multi-billion pound breeding industry. National Hunt racing is, first and foremost, a medium of entertainment, whereas Flat racing is that and a whole lot more besides. While some people profess to enjoy both sports equally, most would surely express a preference for one or the other, because the experiences are very different.
There was a time when Flat racing held sway as both the Sport of Kings and the king of sports, but that hasn’t been the way of things since football, cricket, tennis and a host of other pastimes in which it is easy to participate, rather than just watch, came along. It is now a minority-interest sport and inevitably so in an era when most people are brought up in towns, where they never see a horse.
In my time as a racegoer four major English conurbations have lost their Flat racecourses: London (Alexandra Park), Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool all fell by the wayside, unregretted by the locals who had an abundance of alternative and presumably preferable pursuits to support. If huge towns like those failed to support a Flat racecourse, and other densely populated areas such as Sheffield, Leeds and Bristol have always shunned the sport, just why would anyone imagine that the potential exists to recruit thousands of the uninterested and inspire them to develop a passion for the sport?
Is it possible to credit that last year’s creation of the British Champions’ Series converted any non-believers into regular racegoers? It is just possible that Frankel, by dint of brilliance that attracted attention in the wider media, may have alerted a few of the uninitiated to the fact that racing, like other sports, can produce a superstar, but he would have done that without the sheer coincidence of the British Champions’ Series.
To my mind, the actions of Racing For Change to this point have alienated us. We don’t object to change – we’ve seen and welcomed plenty of changes over the years – but those changes have evolved naturally rather than been imposed on us by marketing folk who have little or no respect for the traditions in racing and scant appreciation of the racegoing experience.
Racing For Change should have treated Flat racing just as it has treated National Hunt racing, i.e. left well alone. Of course, that would have meant they did nothing at all. That would have been fine by me.