The government may for the moment have disbanded its circular firing squad, but racing has never shown a greater ability for self-harm. For once last Saturday I was not on a racecourse. Unfortunately, Mrs Oakley had had a late-night mishap with an Ugg boot and after a midnight ambulance, a night in A&E and her hip-replacement operation, my presence was needed elsewhere. Jump jockeys are only too familiar with A&E wards and limb-setting operations, but on our first acquaintance we marvelled not only at the skill and care of the NHS teams but especially at their patience with an astonishingly high proportion of abusive and aggressive patients with dementia. As one trauma ward doctor put it to me: ‘Hospitals are not a place for rest.’
As it happened, Mrs Oakley’s accident did me a favour in keeping me from a day at Ascot that can only be described as a major embarrassment and a high-profile disaster for jump racing. Thanks to the cost of living, small fields and uncompetitive contests, racing is losing spectators at an alarming rate. After Saturday that exodus will only increase and potential race sponsors will think twice about spending their money.
I was eagerly awaiting travelling to Ascot to see three of jump racing’s stars: the Champion Hurdle favourite Constitution Hill, last year’s champion two-mile novice chaser Edwardstone and L’Homme Pressé, a Cheltenham Festival winner in March whom I believe could win the next Gold Cup. Many racegoers purchased tickets for Saturday with the same objective. Come the day, not only were all three withdrawn from their separate races by their trainers (respectively Nicky Henderson, Alan King and Venetia Williams) but the second race on the card became a walkover when four of the five declared runners were withdrawn by their handlers because of what they called ‘unsuitable’ going, i.e.