Until the recent announcement of the fantastic £2 million-plus Dubai Future Champions festival, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for those in charge of Newmarket racecourse and particularly its hard-working Managing Director, Amy Starkey.
The press hostility towards the Friday fixture on which the Dewhurst and Middle Park Stakes took place may have been justified in terms of the event’s unpopularity, but we should at least acknowledge why it was that Newmarket was driven to put on this fixture in the first place.
Altruism is often in short supply in professional sport and horseracing is no exception. It is why we should be grateful that Jockey Club Racecourses, our biggest racecourse owner, is motivated as much by wanting to do the best for the sport of horseracing as it is by financial imperatives.
Altruism is often in short supply in professional sport and horseracing is no exception
As Newmarket’s owner, JCR must have had to swallow hard when the concept of a British Champions Day was raised five years ago. Yet, far from showing signs of reticence, they were among the principal drivers. They recognised that Ascot was the obvious venue at which to hold such an event, even if it did mean the whole structure of Group racing at the end of the season had to change. Few would surely now deny that the £4m QIPCO Champions Day extravaganza has been a success but a lot of sacrifices were made to accommodate it.
The biggest loser was Newmarket which, for the greater good, gave up one of its major days of the year which included the Champion Stakes. It wasn’t a perfect solution because the well-drained ground of Newmarket is much better able to withstand wet autumnal weather than Ascot. That said, Ascot, with all its grandeur, is really the only place to show off British racing’s finest, even though this fixture still cries out for an earlier slot.
The change to the autumn pattern left the question of what to do with Newmarket’s Dewhurst Stakes and Middle Park Stakes, both traditional autumn Group 1 events for two-year-olds. And so the idea of a juvenile championship fixture on the Friday before British Champions Day came about. But without buy-in from the racing public and the horsemen, to say nothing of the widespread disdain from the press, the fixture would always struggle to establish itself.
Fast forward four months and Newmarket’s world has undergone a very happy transformation. A change in distance to a top French juvenile race allowed the European Pattern Committee to give their blessing for the Dewhurst to sit in a new spot.
So, now, not only do we have a two-day festival meeting on the Rowley Mile at the beginning of October with fantastic prize-money. We also have the Dewhurst being run in front of a big Saturday crowd again with even the staunch traditionalists perhaps gaining some comfort from seeing a field of blue-blooded two-year-olds on the same day as the Cesarewitch’s cavalry charge for handicap stayers.
With the Friday fixture featuring a £500,000 fillies’ race over a mile and the Middle Park Stakes moved, sensibly, to an earlier slot in late September, we should now perhaps start looking for superlatives to lavish upon Amy Starkey and her team.
But Amy is not the sort of person to rest on her laurels. She knows there is still much to do at Newmarket’s two racecourses, even though capital expenditure is far from free-flowing with JCR’s huge commitment to the re-building of Cheltenham weighing heavily on the group.
Innovation is not always linked to increasing budgets, however, and we hope, by the time we get to the Dubai Future Champions festival, there will be some significant improvements made to owners’ facilities.
That aside, this development has given the famous old Rowley Mile racecourse the most enormous boost and provided some solace to those of us who will never let up in the fight to preserve Newmarket’s special place at the heart of horseracing.