In March the Racing Post ran a series of articles in which a number of interested parties gave their views on the European Pattern, the scheme which was instituted in 1971 with the aim of identifying and classifying the major races here and on the continent throughout the season.
The plan was wholly laudable, its fundamental ethos – revealed in a report delivered as early as 1965 – stating that the Turf authorities should “ensure that a series of races over the right distances and at the right time of year are available to test the best horses of all ages, and they must attempt to ensure that the horses remain in training long enough and race often enough to be tested properly for constitution and soundness”.
I welcome the radical suggestion, already proposed and seconded in the Post’s columns, to drop two-year-old races from the Pattern
In 1968, to further underline what the scheme was all about, another report expressed the hope that the innovation would “encourage everyone in the industry to breed, train and race horses which will run in these races both for the prestige they carry and the prize-money attached to them”. A British pilot scheme operated in 1969 and 1970 while international negotiations proceeded, and it was decided to go ahead with the full launch in 1971, in spite of the fact that Germany had still not satisfied the qualifications for membership. In the inaugural year there were 243 European Pattern races, 50 in Group 1, 60 in Group 2 and 133 in Group 3; Britain staged 98 races, France 95, Italy 28 and Ireland 22. There were 161 individual winners.
Everyone recognised that the scheme was bound to evolve over time and, with Germany joining in 1972, there had to be amendments for season two. In that year 184 horses took a share of the Pattern prestige from a total of 273 races, which were split logically, with 55 races in Group 1, 70 in Group 2 and 148 in Group 3. Those proportions felt right, and we were confident of having established a scheme that would remain stable. It also seemed to have been widely accepted as a valuable indicator of racing class – so much so, in fact, that other countries cottoned on and began to emulate it. The North American Graded Stakes scheme had its initiation in 1973, and within a decade some 30 other countries had inaugurated their own Patterns, classifying their major races in three Groups.
Some schemes worked better than others, with the American version among the first to forfeit its credibility; for five consecutive years in the 1980s Grade 1 events actually outnumbered those in Grade 2, and regular additions to the schedule devalued it as a measure of racing quality. Europe’s scheme also grew, but for 20 years there were relatively few changes; between 1980 and 2000 there were never more than 329 Pattern races, never fewer than 314; over that period there were never more than 246 individual winners in any season. Would that things had remained like that!
The Racing Post’s series about the European Pattern was prompted by the seemingly inordinate growth in the scheme since the turn of the century. In 2015 there were 411 races and 316 individual winners, both figures representing new records, and the schedule for 2016 brings the tally of races up to 413. It was high time to ask the question: Is the Pattern still doing what it was designed to do, and assuredly did do in the first 30 years of its existence? Or has it outlived its usefulness after 46 years and become something in need of a radical overhaul?
I was a believer in the Pattern from the start, and so convinced of its merit as a measure of quality in the thoroughbred population that I set myself the task of logging every result and compiling a five-generation tabulated pedigree of every winner; for the first two decades I was doing that without recourse to a computer, and while it became a tad easier in the 1990s, I’ve always been aware that I’d given myself a life sentence, and am naturally conscious that I have invested an enormous amount of time and effort over an exercise that surely identifies me as a nerd, first-class. I really should have got out more.
I’m still serving that sentence, and in one sense it actually seems more necessary now than ever before, because once I’ve compiled a pedigree, I’ve quite forgotten the name of the horse, and if I don’t have it on the computer I’ll never know it again. I retain nothing in my head these days. Just one of the many inevitable consequences of ageing.
But in the last few years I’ve frequently felt that there must be more sensible ways of utilising my time – time that I’m entitled to regard as precious now that I’m past the three score and ten mark. The Pattern has grown by 88 races – that’s over 26% – since the year 2000, and I don’t see how anyone could conceivably consider that rational or justifiable. But it seems there are those who do.
The Post canvassed the views of six individuals – three trainers, a racecourse executive, a sale company boss and a long-time racing establishment figure – and none of them seemed to have noticed what I’ve noticed. Something is broken and it needs fixing. I was astonished to discover that none of the respondents would go much further than to say that the Pattern was less than perfect, and only one – let’s give him credit, it was Mark Johnston – was in favour of a major review. The rest seemed to think it was fit for purpose.
Presented with a question that in the circumstances was plain daft – which races deserved an upgrade? – there were calls for the Gimcrack and the Lowther to be granted Group 1 status. One, who shall be nameless, evidently ignorant of the Pattern’s most basic ground rule, wanted the Free Handicap to be admitted.
It is perfectly obvious that the principal effects of routine additions to the Pattern, such as we have seen in the last 15 years, are to make racing less competitive and to award specious prestige to numerous unworthy horses. It’s not necessary to be Brain of Britain to recognise the deleterious consequences for breeding that such a policy encourages.
I’m not going to hold my breath in anticipation of the radical changes that are needed, and I know I’m going to continue wasting my time tracing pedigrees of horses who really have no right to warrant my interest. I also don’t expect to see the early introduction, as standard in all sales catalogues, of the ratings achieved by all the horses referenced in the female line. Black type has become cheaper, and Group designations no longer mean what they did in the past. My voice in the wilderness is unlikely to be heard.
But I am just a little heartened that a debate has been opened, and I welcome the radical suggestion, already proposed and seconded in the Post’s columns, to drop two-year-old races from the Pattern. It has always struck me as ridiculous that we have a system which encourages the belief that an adolescent racehorse merits equal status with its mature elders. Two-year-old racing has rarely mattered in the development of the breed; it’s a sideshow and should be treated as such. Group 1 prestige should be available only to three-year-olds and older horses.