There are many ways in which British racing may be compared unfavourably with the sport’s thriving state in other countries, with the low level of prize-money the most readily recognised factor, along with the associated encumbrance of having to accommodate the bookmaking industry.
However, there is one area in which Britain does rather well and that is in the amount of coverage devoted to the sport in the media. Sure, it’s not on the level of that found in racing-mad Australia, but it’s a fact that, in addition to the ample service provided by terrestrial television, we have two satellite channels that between them supply coverage of every race run in these parts.
The printed media also plays its part, with every national daily and Sunday paper providing coverage. It is true that in recent years some sports editors have resented giving over so many column inches to cover what we must concede is now a minority interest pursuit, and that, especially on busy days, they have dropped cards for what they consider insignificant meetings. There have been days when The Times has carried cards but provided no editorial matter. But, generally speaking, there is something every day in every paper to give racing a profile.
Preaching to the converted
Contrast that with the situation in the USA, where there is nothing for the casual racing fan. Many papers will carry some coverage of the Triple Crown races, with editorial from writers who do not specialise in racing, but aside from that month in the spring, racing is only ever going to feature when there is a scandal. For coverage of the sport on a daily basis there is nothing bar the Daily Racing Form, which preaches only to the converted.
The Americans have been conscious of the waning interest in racing for many years now. The Breeders’ Cup, created in 1984, was all about raising the sport’s profile, with a series of ultra-valuable end-of-season championship contests that would excite the media, who in turn would excite the uninitiated public.
Just how many millions of dollars have now been thrown at the Breeders’ Cup is anyone’s guess, but I do know that they haven’t realised the prime objective. It’s provided some great races, and there have been some great performances, but it has never persuaded the non-specialist press that it ranks on the level of the Triple Crown and deserves comparable coverage. A routine college basketball game is so much more interesting, demanding its appropriate space.
The time came when the Breeders’ Cup, with grandiose ideas above its station, added the tag ‘World Championships of Racing’ to its title, but to no material effect. Anyone with a bit of nous, aware of how the different seasons in the northern and southern hemisphere affect racing schedules, had to recognise that this was one sport that could never stage a world championship.
The Breeders’ Cup could – and often did – provide a meaningful national championship, bringing together horses from east and west coasts and points in between, and it could provide some exciting competition that also involved horses from Europe. But there could never be level-terms competition between the best horses from north and south, and hence no realistic world championship in the sport.
Nearly half of this month will be spent on learning the identities of the best individuals and teams in the world in a wide variety of sports, and it is all happening in Britain. The Olympic Games have come to London and we may be sure that for their duration they will dominate the nation’s sports pages – and claim attention on front pages as well.
Let nobody doubt that is as it should be, and let nobody be surprised when sports editors on the national dailies bring the marginalisation of racing to a new level.
The biggest impact of that development will fall on Glorious Goodwood, which happens to be my and many other people’s favourite meeting of the year. All five days of the West Sussex festival, staged in a setting unsurpassed in the sport for its beauty, coincide with Olympic competition and we have to expect that the papers are not going to be focusing on it as in other years; a lot of top quality racing is bound to be squeezed out.
That will seem a shame when one of the competitors on view at Goodwood is going to be the horse acknowledged everywhere as the world’s best horse. In the opinion of Timeform, Frankel outranks every other horse it has rated since 1947, placing him 2lb higher than Sea-Bird, 3lb higher than Brigadier Gerard, and its current comments conclude with an observation, unprecedented in those 65 years: “barring accidents, he’ll never be beaten.”
I can well imagine another Frankel cakewalk in the Sussex Stakes being greeted by sports editors with: “So what’s new about that? A couple of paragraphs will do.” The horrifying thought occurs that to warrant more space the great horse will have to lose. Heaven forbid, but that certainly would be news.
In Britain’s third Olympic year it is good to know that we have the legitimate gold medallist for racing achievements, something we did not enjoy on the previous occasions. I’ve been checking back on 1908 and 1948, the previous years when London played host to the Games, and I fear we would not have had too much to crow about. Perhaps Your Majesty, winner of the St James’s Palace, the Eclipse and the St Leger, might just have scraped a bronze in ’08; another Leger winner, Black Tarquin, would have been scrapping with French-trained Arbar for the same minor honour in ’48.
We have ratings now to determine the identity of the best horse in the world and, although the official rankings don’t go back very far, John Randall and I undertook a lot of research in 1999 to decide on the annual world’s best for our book A Century of Champions.
While some of our choices might be deemed controversial, there can hardly be any disputing that in 1908 the honour belonged to Colin, and in 1948 to Citation. Both were three-year-olds and both were American.
In all probability, Colin was the best horse bred in America up to his time. He had 12 races as a two-year-old, 11 of them stakes, and he won them all. At three he preserved his unbeaten record with successes in the Withers, the Belmont and Tidal Stakes. The second of those wins came only narrowly over the worthy Fair Play (later sire of Man o’ War), but it was common knowledge that he was no longer sound and that his trainer had not wanted to run him.
His last win came after the New York Legislature had ruled racetrack betting illegal, so Colin was sent to England, in the hope that Sam Darling could nurse him back to fitness. Unfortunately, that proved to be wishful thinking; Colin never ran again.
In 1948 Citation had a phenomenal season. Between February 2 and December 11 he ran in 20 races at nine different tracks from six furlongs to two miles and won 19 times. His only off-day came in a minor six-furlong event in which he was carried wide and failed by a length to concede the winner 4lb. All bar three of his wins came in stakes races and, in addition to the Triple Crown, he notched victories in such other prestige events as the American Derby and the Belmont Gold Cup. We made Citation a 3lb better horse than Man o’War, and rated none more highly until the advent of Secretariat.
But 2012 is different. While America’s quest for the outstanding horse of her year continues, we have a genuine superstar who might just be the best of all time.