I am not aware that bookmakers offered any prices about recipients of awards in the 2016 New Year’s Honours List, but if they did Tony McCoy must have figured as a long odds-on chance to be granted a knighthood.
Having been appointed MBE in 2003 and advanced to OBE in 2010, the Ulsterman was a certainty to become Sir Anthony on his retirement, and by timing that withdrawal from his sport when his 20th consecutive jump jockeys’ title became a formality, assurance was made doubly sure. The award, duly announced at the end of the year, was universally welcomed, and never was such recognition more obviously deserved.
However, I feel bound to offer a caveat in that the award should properly have been made for McCoy’s ‘services to National Hunt racing’, rather than for ‘services to racing’. The notion that Flat and jumps are all one and the same is erroneous, that they are two very different sports having at no time in history been more evident.
McCoy has often stated he felt his principal achievement was to have beaten Sir Gordon Richards’s record for winners in a season. He did nothing of the sort, unless we class apples and oranges as the same. The first knight of the saddle rode 269 Flat winners between March 25 and November 22 in 1947, and that record remains intact. McCoy’s record of 289 winners in the 12-month 2001-02 National Hunt season, while extremely laudable, came in a completely different branch of horse sport. It is ludicrous to pretend the pair competed in the same discipline, and while both feats deserve the highest commendation, there is no way they warrant comparison with one another.
Sir Gordon Richards rode 269 Flat winners between March 25 and November 22 in 1947; it is ludicrous to pretend the pair competed in the same discipline
In the late 1820s a writer in the Sporting Magazine, reviewing the state of racing in Britain, remarked the downfall of Cheltenham could be attributed to the introduction of the steeplechase. The arrival of the Grand National in the late 1830s did not improve the image of jump racing for many, the noted commentator on equine matters Charles James Apperley (who used the pen-name Nimrod) regarding it as an aberration that detracted from hunting, the popular idea of the real cross-country sport. In 1862 Admiral Rous, by then the Dictator of the Turf, made it clear that the Jockey Club wanted nothing to do with what he called “this extraneous branch of horse racing”, and three years later the National Hunt Committee was founded to govern what the Victorians always referred to as ‘the illegitimate sport’. Inevitably, the two sports developed as separate entities, which, to my mind, they remain.
They were certainly recognised as distinct branches when I started to write about them in the 1960s, the Flat being governed by the Jockey Club and jumping by the National Hunt Committee. There was some limited cross-over in memberships, and occasionally there would be an individual who served as a steward on both bodies, but as a general rule the differences were more conspicuous than the similarities. Typically, the Flat season would run from late March to early November, while jumping was conducted from early August to early June. Each had the field to itself for a period.
In the mid-1970s the two governing bodies were merged under the title of ‘The Jockey Club (incorporating the National Hunt Committee)’, and that was the first of a host of changes that have led to a 21st century scenario that could not have been imagined 50 years ago. In came summer jumping, to ensure National Hunt racing was staged throughout the year, and in came all-weather tracks to mean the Flat also ran for 12 months without a break. After 250 years the Jockey Club opted out of the governance of racing to fill a different role, to be succeeded by the BHB, then the BHA.
Was there a reason why these two distinct sports were taken under the same umbrella? I imagine that it would suit the government and the betting industry to lump them together, but only a tiny minority of horsemen are involved in both, and the action tends to be played to different audiences. I’ve met plenty of people who follow both codes, but also encountered plenty who have a decided preference, and I don’t doubt the latter amount to a substantial majority, including a number who would not dream of setting foot on a track staging the ‘wrong’ code.
I also have a shrewd idea that those with a preference for National Hunt racing are, by and large, the more passionate group. It is not necessary to visit Cheltenham or Aintree to form that view; it comes over strongly in the correspondence columns of the Racing Post, and it is understandable. Jumping is pure spectacle, it involves horses who are often around for years, and fans naturally feel an involvement with them, connecting on the level of old friends. There is an element of that on the Flat, but it is much less marked.
What National Hunt racing also enjoys is continuity. It has not suffered the intrusions of the marketing folk, who have, through a want of understanding and reckless abandonment of traditions, meddled with the Flat racing programme in several areas, succeeding only in alienating those who have grown up with a schedule that has stood the test of time for centuries. Where else in the world is the jockeys’ title determined on results that ignore a big chunk of the season?
The Racing Post greeted Tony McCoy’s knighthood by calling him the ‘greatest jump jockey the world has ever seen’, an assertion that few would dispute. But let’s not forget what a small world that covers. National Hunt racing thrives famously in Britain and Ireland, and is carried on successfully, but with a somewhat lower profile, in France. In the wider world it exists as a sideshow or not at all. It is rather akin to baseball or American football in terms of its global reach.
Flat racing, by contrast, is truly a global sport, and represents the shop window for a hugely competitive global breeding industry. We may justly claim Britain and Ireland are hardly less conspicuous among leaders in that sphere than their counterparts in the field of National Hunt, but they have more rivals to contend with on the Flat. Over jumps the rivalry between Britain and Ireland represents a key factor in the sport’s appeal; in Flat racing the two nations are linked, partners in the same stud book, competing with the rest of the world.
Figures suggest racing is the second-best attended sport in Britain, but we were not told how the numbers compared in terms of Flat and National Hunt. And we might be little the wiser if we were given the percentages, because, particularly on the Flat in the summer months, crowds are attracted to racecourses less by the thrill of witnessing horse-sport competition than by the attraction provided by pop music acts.
I am unaware of any evidence that the provision of such entertainment in recent years has acquired many converts to the habit of racegoing. Indeed, I am inclined to believe that on such occasions it is racing that constitutes the sideshow.