After listening to a violinist’s justification of his playing, Dr Samuel Johnson responded tartly: ‘Difficult do you call it, Sir? I wish it were impossible.’ Racing’s marketing arm, Great British Racing, probably attempted the impossible in trying to satisfy all parties concerned in devising a new structure for the Flat Jockeys Championship. As part of its efforts to give greater narrative and structure to racing’s untidy seasons, its plan is for the title, which will now include a £25,000 prize, to be awarded to the jockey who rides the most winners between the Qipco-sponsored Guineas meeting at Newmarket on 2 May and the Qipco-sponsored Champions Day on 17 October.
It is not a perfect situation. The Flat Owners Championship will be decided over the same period as the jockeys’ championship, but the Flat Trainers Championship, decided not by winners trained but by the amount of prize money won, will still be determined over a calendar year. The timeframe selected means that the Lincoln Handicap, the traditional opening to the Flat season run at Doncaster last weekend, won’t be included. Also uncounted will be winners ridden at Newmarket’s early season Craven meeting, Newbury’s Greenham meeting and the important Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster a week after Champions Day. As jockey Luke Morris noted, it is like running the Formula One motor-racing championship and saying that the first and last races won’t count towards the drivers’ championship.
Attempting any change in racing immediately gives rise to a vociferous chorus of traditionalists who insist that marketing is nothing more than the rattling of a mop in a slop bucket and that anything from a plague of locusts to the slaughter of the first-born will ensue from tampering with the way things used to be done. Sometimes I sing along with them. The new GBR plan, despite wide consultations over two years, has certainly brought out the critics, and the columns of the Racing Post, not entirely a disinterested party in this instance, have been full of complaints.
I can sympathise with trainer Ed Dunlop’s defence of the old system, which produced some memorable battles for the title such as the dead heat between Seb Sanders and Jamie Spencer in 2007. He argues, ‘It seems only right that the rider willing to travel the length and breadth of the country to secure the crown is the one rewarded for their endeavour and this new initiative will remove us significantly from that concept.’ But racing has become internationalised and the old system had imperfections too. Too often the title was a measure not just of talent in the saddle but of a willingness to put in the motorway miles journeying to and from ill-attended minor meetings. Although Richard Hughes has been a glorious exception, other former champions such as Ryan Moore, Frankie Dettori, Jamie Spencer and Paul Hanagan have made plain that the effort required was simply not worth it to them or their families. Often jockeys with a retainer for a big owner or stable could not afford to include title-chasing among their objectives. From September onwards, many top jockeys are now jetting around the world in search instead of international big-race kudos and prize money and the new scheme will hopefully bring more of them into contention.
What some seem to forget is that the new scheme, with prize money coming both from Qipco and Great British Racing, will include a cash prize too for the jockey who wins the most races during the calendar year, for the champion on all-weather tracks and for the top apprentice. If Champions Day really is to be the Flat season’s crescendo, then there is some logic in having the jockeys title decided then too.
It should be given a fair wind, but I have one vital objection: there is no equivalent proposed for the jump jockeys, whose title clearly must continue to be decided on the calendar year. The jump boys, and girls, take even greater risk with life and limb and their careers are shorter than those who ride on the Flat. Money matters less in jump racing than it does on the Flat, which is why it remains a joyous sport as well as a business. Tom Scudamore says, ‘You can’t put a price on being champion jockey,’ and equally typically the jump jockeys who have to put the same into a ride at Stratford on a soggy Thursday as they do into contesting the Cheltenham Gold Cup or County Hurdle agree that their championship must reflect consistency. Says the retiring champion A.P. McCoy, who would have a nice pension pot if they had been giving a prize for his title over the 20 years he has won it every time, ‘Part of any title should be about who is prepared to work the hardest.’ Surely somewhere in the racing world there is a sponsor who would be proud to take on the funding of a prize for the true fighter pilots of the Turf. And if there is not, then the BHA and Great British Racing must fund it themselves.