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The turf

The turf: Rescue remedy

Asked why he had sent a wreath in the shape of a lifebelt, a friend at the funeral of a man who had drowned replied, ‘It’s what he would have wanted.’ Does Flat racing, which keeps convincing itself it is drowning, need a lifebelt in the shape of a rich new fixture at Ascot on the second weekend in October to be called Champions Day? In the parade ring on Sunday, Ascot’s chairman Stoker Hartington, the Duke of Devonshire, just about convinced me that it does.

2 October 2010

12:00 AM

2 October 2010

12:00 AM

Asked why he had sent a wreath in the shape of a lifebelt, a friend at the funeral of a man who had drowned replied, ‘It’s what he would have wanted.’ Does Flat racing, which keeps convincing itself it is drowning, need a lifebelt in the shape of a rich new fixture at Ascot on the second weekend in October to be called Champions Day? In the parade ring on Sunday, Ascot’s chairman Stoker Hartington, the Duke of Devonshire, just about convinced me that it does.

Asked why he had sent a wreath in the shape of a lifebelt, a friend at the funeral of a man who had drowned replied, ‘It’s what he would have wanted.’ Does Flat racing, which keeps convincing itself it is drowning, need a lifebelt in the shape of a rich new fixture at Ascot on the second weekend in October to be called Champions Day? In the parade ring on Sunday, Ascot’s chairman Stoker Hartington, the Duke of Devonshire, just about convinced me that it does.

In early autumn French racing comes to a crescendo with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe weekend, and the international season winds up (though Hong Kong and Japan will disagree) with the Breeders Cup weekend in America. British racing instead expires with a whimper over several weeks after what has always been my favourite autumn meeting, Newmarket’s Champion Stakes weekend. It has offered the only card in Britain with six Group races, including the one-and-a-quarter mile Champion Stakes and the Dewhurst Stakes two-year-old championship plus the Cesarewitch, the biggest-betting autumn handicap. Now, nobly, Newmarket has ceded the Champion Stakes to Ascot, which will stage Britain’s richest-ever fixture with £3 million of prize money.


Stoker and the Racing For Change organisation, which is trying to bring a new audience to the sport, believe the new fixture will supply Flat racing with a narrative peak to rival jump racing’s annual Olympics in the shape of the Cheltenham Festival. A new big money day to attract the best international competitors, they urge, has to be good for the sport. The old fixture list shaped by the ‘European Pattern’ of Group races agreed in 1971, they argue, cannot be cast in stone, and the Ascot bonanza day is to be linked to a series of championship races through the season at each racing distance, giving British racing new marketing opportunities. Traditionalists, and many Newmarket Racecourse members, have opposed the changes. One racing sage of my acquaintance harrumphed like a disappointed stallion as he complained, ‘Next, I suppose, they’ll be running the Derby at Cheltenham.’

With misgivings, I am now one of those supporting the experiment. Ascot is a truly international racecourse with the capacity to handle big crowds. And the consolation prize for Newmarket, a Future Champions fixture focusing on emerging talent, is an attractive one. The very fact that the French authorities fought a rearguard action against the changes is encouraging. But I support it as an experiment that must be tried for a reasonable period and abandoned if it fails.

With the undoubted quality in British racing being swamped by quantity, what is sad is that the new programme was not accompanied by a far heavier cutback in the overall number of fixtures staged purely as betting-shop fodder. And, as ever, John Gosden should be listened to when he warns that the proposed Champions Day in October is a month too late, with the danger of poor ground and a shortage of top international contestants so close to the big French meeting and the Breeders Cup.

My other fear is for the Champion Stakes itself. Jockey Michael Hills, for example, points out that Newmarket’s straight one and a quarter miles is a far truer test of horses over what has become the key distance for many breeders. If you are drawn in the low numbers in a big field of 15 or more, you have pretty well lost your chance before the start round Ascot’s bend.

As for Sunday’s racing, Richard Hughes took the unflinching Lady of The Desert into a gap I wouldn’t have attempted to thread a needle through to win the Diadem Stakes for Brian Meehan, and you simply won’t see a better duel than the one Richard Hills and Kieren Fallon fought at the end of the Cumberland Lodge Stakes on their respective mounts Laaheb and Whispering Gallery. Locked together down the straight, they were indivisible at the post. Most thought Whispering Gallery, one of our Twelve to Follow, had prevailed but the photo verdict went to Laaheb. Richard Hills was ‘absolutely chuffed’ and you could not grudge trainer Michael Jarvis the victory. On Friday his Ferdoos had lost by a nose, on Saturday it was the same story with Sajjhaa. Said assistant Roger Varian, ‘Thank God, we got one to go our way. I thought we had been beaten on the bob, but we were owed one.’ The fun result, though, was the victory in the Fenwolf Stakes of Fictional Account, one of just seven horses trained by Co. Meath sheep farmer Vincent Ward. He exulted, ‘We’ve had horses for 25 years and have dreamed of a day like this.’ Who says Ascot can’t do a Cheltenham.


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