For anyone in these islands anxious to learn about the racing programme in France, as I was in the mid-1960s, the annual Abrégé des Courses Plates provided a splendid guide. Five illuminating pages in the volume covering the 1965 season identified for me the names of the biggest races (the grandes epreuves), and they were neatly presented in chronological order under age groups. The courses where they were staged and the distances over which they were run were also included, and the most important events, designated classiques, were readily recognised by the simple use of capital letters.
Full marks to the French, I thought. Somebody there had done a bit of serious planning, there was a logical structure to their campaign, and as well as its minor role in educating foreigners such as me as to what went on there it served a more significant purpose in indicating for the professionals in the game how the career of an aspiring high-class racehorse should be managed.
There were 21 races referred to as classiques, the Robert Papin, the Morny and the Grand Criterium for two-year-olds only, the Forêt for two-year-olds and up, the Greffulhe, the Daru, the Noailles, the Poulains, the Pouliches, the Hocquart, the Lupin, the Saint-Alary, the Jockey-Club, the Diane, the Grand Prix de Paris, the Royal Oak and the Vermeille for three-year-olds only, the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and Arc de Triomphe for three-year-olds and up, and the Ganay and Cadran for four-year-olds and up. Significantly, none was a handicap.
There was a long period of stability, the number of races never exceeding 329 between 1986 and 2001
The essential message conveyed by that list was: here is how we cut the prestige cake in French racing, so if you want a slice of it, earning a real reputation for your horse, and the appropriate financial rewards, these are your targets. How ordered, how sensible, how obviously founded in logic it was.
I was still pretty much a novice in the game then, but I could readily recognise that what we had in England was anything but a well-defined programme of major races. At York in August 1965, the Yorkshire Oaks was worth £4,465 to the winner, the Nunthorpe £3,741, the Great Voltigeur £4,524, the Gimcrack £6,809, and the Ebor Handicap £10,419. The big betting race of the meeting provided the richest reward, and it was a contest in which the previous year’s Oaks heroine, Homeward Bound, carried top weight of 9st 7lb and was trying to concede as much as 35lb to some of her 24 rivals. Sent off at 33-1, she finished a never-dangerous eighth and victory went to one of the joint-favourites, Twelfth Man, another four-year-old, shouldering 7st 5lb.
Education, education, education
Racehorses of 1965 awarded a rating of 133 to Gimcrack winner Young Emperor, 125 to Voltigeur winner Ragazzo, 122 to Nunthorpe winner Polyfoto, 113 to Yorkshire Oaks winner Mabel, and 103 to Twelfth Man. Those marks would not have surprised any racing professional with an understanding of what constituted class in the thoroughbred and which races had the potential to influence the breed, but for the man in the street the least gifted of the quintet, just a useful gelding, appeared to be the star turn. He needed educating.
Exactly what it was that provoked the powers-that-were in England to embark on that process of education I don’t know, but I have always liked to think it was the French model, which set such a shining example of the way it should be done. By 1969 England had a system of classification for its major races, a Pattern for Racing, as it was styled in the report of a committee chaired by the Duke of Norfolk. It came in quietly, with absolutely no fanfare, and few people were aware of its existence until it became part of an integrated scheme involving other European countries in 1971.
It made something of a stuttering start. The scheme, as announced, included major races from England, France, Ireland and Italy, but by publication date for the first annual setting out the conditions of entry for events in the new European Pattern, the Italians still had not got their act together. The dates of the scheduled races in Italy appeared in that slim volume, but there were no race conditions, an omission that could hardly have encouraged entries from other countries.
Indeed, such was the confusion and failure of communication that the fifth Pattern race of 1971 in Italy, the Group 3 Corsa dell’ Arno at Florence, was run under handicap conditions. It remains the sole anomaly in that respect among the 14,174 European Pattern races contested in the first 43 years of the scheme.
In the year of its inception the European Pattern consisted of 243 races: 50 Group 1, 60 Group 2 and 133 Group 3. There were 161 individual winners, among them Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard, responsible for 11 victories between them. We always knew that the scheme would evolve, and additions were to be expected. Germany, not one of the original participants because many of its races were then closed to foreign horses, was cleared to join in 1973, and for many years just five nations were included in the scheme.
Further growth took place and other countries became involved, but there was a long period of stability with the number of races never exceeding 329 between 1986 and 2001. When the tally finally exceeded that figure, reaching 331 in 2002, that might have seemed no big deal, but closer examination revealed something that had clearly gone wrong. While the races in Group 3 numbered 172, around the level constant since the late 1970s, there were now 80 in Group 2, only one more than those in the elite Group 1 category.
There clearly needed to be an adjustment to restore a sensible differential between the top two Groups, but the way that was achieved in 2003 was far from satisfactory. The overall Pattern was extended by 16 races, with one addition in Group 1, 11 in Group 2 and four in Group 3. Unsurprisingly, the prestige cake was sliced more thinly than ever, with 270 individual winners.
It was clear that things were now out of control. The programme was extended by 20 races in 2004 and it has continued to grow. Last year the scheme included a record 406 races and no fewer than 315 individual horses, also a record, claimed a share of the prestige. Minor adjustments in 2014 – one race fewer in Group 1 and Group 2, and a rise of two in Group 3 – means the overall total remains the same. Let’s be realistic. The European Pattern is no longer what it was and what it was originally intended to be.
All this irrational growth has just provided opportunities for horses to avoid one another, to make racing less competitive, and to dispense specious honours. Can anyone argue that in 2013 there were 100 more horses worthy of recognition as a Pattern winner than there were in the late 1970s? Where is the evidence that we are now breeding better equine athletes? It is not to be found in the ratings.
The planned expulsion of Italy from the 2015 Pattern because of its failure to pay prize-money would wipe 30 races off the schedule. As that ongoing problem has meant that Italian Pattern races have been attracting very few runners from the UK, Ireland and France over the last two years, they should probably have been struck off the list for 2013 and 2014 as well.
There should be no temptation to add races to the schedule in 2015 to make up for the Italian expulsions. Instead, the Pattern committee should be looking to strip numerous other races of their bogus status and attempt to restore our faith in a system that we welcomed as a reliable measure of class in 1971 and could still believe in up to the turn of the century.