“Never forget the horse,” said Pat Eddery 20 years ago. Shame his words have not been heeded by journalists…and it’s getting worse in Blighty
Some moments live long in the memory. Our vaults overflow with images of global resonance, but just occasionally a moment is poignant for its place in time. Pat Eddery once toasted an award for his riding prowess by declaring: “Never forget the horse.” His words still linger today.
They came at a time when yours truly was making the difficult transition from racing nut to racing journalist. It was a seminal experience. Despite their protestations to the contrary, it was staggering to discover how racing’s professionals demanded recognition for the deeds of their horses. And how, in consequence, those who wrote about racing were only too happy to oblige.
It seemed an incongruous alliance. Back then, the onus on reporters was changing. The new tack was to bring the game to life by projecting racing professionals, yet here was one of the finest jockeys of all time intent on celebrating the horse. It was they who swept him to glory, Eddery said, not the other way round. He had it absolutely right.
That was 20 years ago, since when Eddery’s sentiments have been totally usurped. Today, the constant aggrandisement of racing professionals leaves the horse a distant second. Now that’s fine on a wet Tuesday at Folkestone. On a major occasion, however, it is fraught with danger.
The fallacy was laid bare by Zenyatta’s shocking defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, when the mare’s romp towards perfection was arrested by a jockey who failed her. In the process, it reiterated what is recognised by racing enthusiasts around the world. Proven horses don’t blow big races; jockeys do.
Racing provokes impassioned debate among the faithful, but as poor Mike Smith admitted, there was no beef here. Argument instead polarised around whether Smith should have been hanged or spared. John McCririck and Matt Chapman reached for the rope on At The Races, enfranchising a British audience to do likewise. The poppy was cut down with a pair of blunt shears.
Such bile rises when man is put before horse. Nooses must be tightened, lambs slaughtered on the altar of human frailty. Yet for those putting horse before man, the afterglow was quite different.
They were entranced by a mare whose dislike of kickback took her so palpably out of her ground. They reflected wistfully at her blocked passage when she turned for home. They could only marvel at her stupendous efforts to avoid being defrocked by a jockey who lost the plot. Yet despite all this, she almost made it. Zenyatta retires with her dignity not so much intact as greatly enhanced.
Smith was too in awe of her to help her. He nursed her along, hoping she would lead the charge herself. Then he was blinded by panic. Pillory him if you will, but the Classic underlined that compelling storylines are best delivered by equine messengers.
Zenyatta was willing where Smith was found wanting. Those who promote professionals ahead of horses light fires in the basement of racing’s house.
Not a numbers game, or is it?
On a similar theme, one has to wonder how the ongoing compression of racing into a betting medium has affected its popularity with the public. It’s a salient thought at a time when racing and bookmakers have never been more divided over the sport’s financial worth.
There is, of course, a requirement to promote betting, yet the greater that emphasis, the less people will see it as sport. Rival sports increasingly account for a bigger share of annual turnover but they remain steadfastly loyal to their roots.
To this eye, racing weakens its roots by its preoccupation with betting. It becomes little more than a medium for gamblers with no feel for it and who quickly transfer their allegiance on the back of a losing run.
As a specialist channel, At The Races is beholden to explore the betting angle. Yet this approach can jar when it performs on the bigger stage. A feature of its Breeders’ Cup coverage was the way guest pundits from TVG, At The Races’ equivalent in America, recoiled at the way our boys belittled horses of substantial achievement when previewing each race. It was unedifying in the extreme.
We used to accuse Americans of treating horses like numbers in a lottery. Is the boot now on the other foot?