We have lately witnessed rare and remarkable outbreaks of common sense among those responsible for the scheduling of major races on both sides of the English Channel. Neither development actually went as far as it should have, and though both were in the nature of correcting mistakes perpetrated in recent years, there appear to have been no apologies for those past errors.
The welcome news from France was that the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere, the two-year-old feature open to colts and fillies contested at Longchamp on Arc day, would in future be contested over a mile instead of seven furlongs. This move restores the situation that existed until the uncalled-for meddling of 2001, which served no discernible purpose.
The French had an admirably logical schedule of prestige events long before the notion of a European Pattern was conceived, and it was particularly effective in the realm of juvenile racing. I grew up readily appreciating the sense of a programme that tested the best of the crop over progressive distances. The series started with the Prix Robert Papin over five and a half furlongs at Maisons-Laffitte in July, continued with the Prix Morny over six furlongs at Deauville in August, took in the Prix de la Salamandre over seven furlongs at Longchamp in September, and concluded with the Grand Criterium over a mile back at Longchamp in October.
The French had an admirably logical schedule of prestige events long before the notion of a European Pattern was conceived
It was a schedule that pretty much dictated how horsemen should campaign their better two-year-olds, and it proved highly successful, routinely identifying the best of the generation. Everyone recognised the fact that this was a series, and many horses would be entered for all four events. It was known familiarly as France’s Juvenile Quadruple Crown, and I remember being mightily excited when the English-trained My Swallow became the first ever to register victories in all four events in 1970. Blushing Groom, later a Classic winner and internationally successful sire, emulated My Swallow’s feat in 1976.
The Grand Criterium (which was restyled the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere in honour of that notable owner-breeder in 2003) had been a mile contest since 1864 and had regularly proved to be the defining event of the two-year-old season, deciding the destiny of the championship. It was precisely because the race had been so obviously successful over many decades that Phil Bull instituted the Timeform Gold Cup, the event we know now as the Racing Post Trophy, at Doncaster in 1961; until then there had been no race of comparable stature for juveniles over a mile in Britain. In its inaugural year it was the most valuable race for the youngest racing crop outside the USA, and horsemen soon recognised that it was a welcome – indeed hugely significant – addition to the schedule. Just like the Grand Criterium, it identified champions and often provided an excellent guide to the following year’s Classics.
The Grand Criterium was still fulfilling its role as the culmination of the Group 1 Juvenile Quadruple Crown in 2000 when it was won by undefeated champion Okawango, so what on earth was the point of reducing its distance for 2001? Did France need to replicate the Prix de la Salamandre? Two-year-olds were eligible for the all-aged Prix de la Foret over seven furlongs; they always had that option. This was a classic case of fixing something that was not broken, a blunder the French repeated in 2005 when, in spite of widespread disapproval, they reduced the distance of the Prix du Jockey-Club to ten and a half furlongs. That move was predictably disastrous and has proved so, forfeiting the race’s status as a direct counterpart of the premier Classics staged at Epsom, the Curragh and Hamburg.
Dilution, dilution, dilution
From the inception of the European Pattern Race Scheme in 1971 it was acknowledged that there would be evolution. We especially expected growth, but I don’t suppose that anyone anticipated expansion on such a scale that in 2013 there would be more individual Pattern winners (315) than there were Pattern races in 1993 (314). There has, inevitably, been a lot of change, some of it quite necessary and acceptable, but I can only deplore changes to elite events that ignore history and tradition.
The reversion of the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere to its traditional distance has supposedly enabled the re-vamping of England’s autumn programme and the establishment of a two-day bonanza fixture on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile course in October, strongly supported by Dubai, with something in excess of £2 million in prize-money on offer. That news, announced in mid-February, was immediately given a warm welcome by prominent owners and trainers, and I echo such sentiments, while having some reservations about the detail.
Give Sunday a chance
The occasion has been dubbed ‘Champions Weekend,’ but since when have Friday and Saturday constituted a weekend? Are there such short memories among the HQ team that they have forgotten the dreadfully disappointing 2014 Friday, when Newmarket staged part one of the ill-conceived double act with Ascot?
Can anyone doubt that the fixture would be more sensibly and more profitably staged on Saturday and Sunday? We are led to believe that such an arrangement was discussed, but that Newmarket was not able “to secure the engagement of all the stakeholders”. I suspect they didn’t try hard enough.
As for the suggestion that Newmarket never wanted to stage the Middle Park and Dewhurst Stakes on the same day, I seem to recollect that the racecourse accepted that folly readily enough at the time. And, far from defending the Champion Stakes, for well over a century the course’s principal weight-for-age event, it actually yielded it up to Ascot with scarcely a murmur of discontent – and imagined that Newmarket regulars would be amply compensated by the transfer from Ascot of the Fillies’ Mile and the Royal Lodge Stakes.
The Champion Stakes was not just one of Newmarket’s crown jewels; it was unique in the world as the only major race contested over a straight mile and a quarter. That alone should have been sufficient for the course to have fought tooth and nail for its preservation at its natural home. It’s a different race now, with no distinguishing feature, sacrificed for no better reason than making it more available to Londoners. As my old friend Jean Hislop used to say, when such crass decisions were made: “When do they ever consider the horse?”
Along with the announcement of Newmarket’s new autumn attraction came a strong hint that the July Cup would revert to its traditional midweek date in 2016 after five years in a Saturday slot when it has had to compete with high-profile cards at York, Ascot and Chester. The change made in 2011 was resented from the start by bookmakers and punters, as well as by owners and trainers; opposition to the move could hardly have been more comprehensive.
Amy Starkey, on behalf of Newmarket, referred to changes to the July meeting “that have met with criticism and been the source of ongoing debate in recent years”. To my mind, that was putting it all too mildly. How refreshing it would have been if she had just admitted: “We got it wrong.”
Still, the knowledge that the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere is reverting to its traditional distance, that there will once again be two weeks between the Middle Park and the Dewhurst, and that the July Cup will likely go back to a midweek slot, amount to admissions that changes were wrongly implemented. Next I want to learn that the Prix du Jockey-Club is returning to its traditional distance and the Champion Stakes to its natural home. But I’m not holding my breath.
And now they tell me that this year’s Derby will be run at 4.30pm, in the hope of adding to the TV audience. Not just wrong day, but wrong time as well now.