When runners for the first race at the Cheltenham Festival jump from the starting tape to the now traditional roar of the crowd, it will mark the start of one of the greatest horseracing festivals in the world. And for those of us who bear some of the responsibility for the wellbeing of this sport it will be a happy reminder that horseracing at its highest level continues to have a fantastic draw on the public consciousness.
It will also remind us there is a balance to be struck between the tradition of British horseracing and the need to innovate so that our sport continues to thrive in the modern world.
Jump racing must make a link between its big races and the Festival, like Flat’s Champions’ Series
The first National Hunt Festival took place well over 100 years ago and, as it goes from strength to strength each year, we can see how imaginative innovation enhances tradition rather than destroys it.
The truth is, of course, that racing is no different from any other sporting activity in that it lives or dies on the basis of the best it can offer. However ingenious the marketing, it is to no avail unless public imagination is captured by great performers and great events.
This is not to diminish the everyday fare of horseracing – which in its way is every bit as important as top-class racing – but it is forever dependent upon the cream of the product to create an access route into the sport for the many.
It is also why the organisation of a sport is so important in realising its full potential. In racing we must acknowledge that the structure of the seasons, the positioning of the racing festivals and major races within the calendar, and the creation of a programme that pits the best against the best, are our most important foundation stones.
Thus we saw the birth of the British Champions’ Series and British Champions’ Day and, although it may have upset some of racing’s traditionalists, only the most diehard would now rue the day when a link was created between our top Flat events that build naturally to Ascot’s wonderful showpiece. A similar link should now be established between jumping’s major races and its championship deciders at Cheltenham.
And then there is the racing calendar, which continues to be riddled with anomalies that must create confusion among any new entrants to the sport.
The beginning and end of the jumps season has lost its structure with the nonsense of ending the official jumps season on what is now a half-decent mixed card at Sandown in April, only for the new season to kick off the following day, while it is surely self-evident that making Grand National day the final afternoon of the jumps season would provide the best finale of all.
All-weather racing – important though it is – has blurred the demarcation lines of jockey and trainer Flat championships. This is a confusion that could so easily be sorted out by simply separating all-weather and Flat turf races for the purposes of seasonal championships.
Moreover, the start of the Flat turf season surely requires much more hoopla to tell the world that something special is happening.
And why the fallow period while the new Flat season begins to slowly awaken and during which time Easter usually passes almost without recognition from a horseracing perspective?
Has anyone not thought of an effective way of making Easter, with its prolonged public holiday, the vehicle for a great racing festival?
But whatever the merit of ideas and however much they may clash with tradition, British racing’s most important focus has to be about quality. For this is the way to build public awareness, to encourage people to go racing, to ensure that we continue to enjoy terrestrial TV coverage and that racing remains the best possible enticement for those who like to have a bet.