A joyful Saturday at Ascot recently reminded me that when the old Hurst Park Racecourse (near Hampton Court Palace) closed to become a Wates housing estate, the turf was taken to Ascot to form the basis of the jumping track then being established there. It was living beside Hurst Park — where the seven-furlong start abutted the Thameside Upper Deck swimming pool and jockeys focused on bikini-clad local lovelies sometimes missed the off — that turned me in my boyhood into a racing enthusiast, standing on the saddle of my bike perched against the boundary fence to watch the horses flash by or goggling at Prince Monolulu in his headdress flogging tips outside the front gate.
In those days politicians shared the nation’s punting pleasures: the informal rule in the Conservative whips’ office, a former chief whip told me, was ‘light whipping in Ascot week, no votes on Derby Day and get the House up for the summer recess in time for Glorious Goodwood’. Winston Churchill, who bought his first horse, Colonist II, at the age of 75, had more than 30 over several years in training with Walter Nightingall in Epsom and it was at Hurst Park in May 1951 that the then Queen Elizabeth invited the statesman to lunch before his gutsy grey beat her father’s Above Board in the Winston Churchill Stakes. Racing gave him great pleasure in his later years, though when told that an injury at Goodwood necessitated Colonist’s retirement to stud, Churchill was initially reluctant: ‘To stud? And have it said that the Prime Minister of England is living on the immoral earnings of a horse?’
Sadly no MPs today own horses. Few Parliamentarians would know a two-year-old sprinter from a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and the constant churning of ministers through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport ensures that there is no one in government whose oversight of the sport lasts long enough to give them the slightest grasp of racing’s problems, like the urgent need for Levy reform. Nor, with the media seemingly in one of its periodic fits of anti-gambling virtue-signalling, is there any sign of the political will and adaptability to safeguard the jobs of the 200,000 dependent on the £4 billion racing industry.
The truth is that British racing has a prize money crisis combined with a structure incapable of correcting it. We will never be Australia or Hong Kong; that pass was sold long ago. It has a staffing crisis exacerbated by Brexit and it has serious questions to face about what happens to the bulk of racehorses once their racecourse days have gone. Field sizes are declining and without the Middle East owners who make such a crucial contribution we could be lost. Already the deaths of the much-missed Hamdan Al Maktoum and Khalid Abdullah have seen cutbacks in their family operations. Just suppose that Sheikh Mohammed, rightly under pressure on human-rights questions close to home, should decide that he wants no more of the British racing scene and the UK media glare: it could bring seismic change. As trainer Mark Johnston points out: ‘For every £1 in prize money the Maktoums win they put £4 into running their horses. That’s not a benefit to them, it’s a benefit to us.’
British jump racing, as the 23-5 drubbing at the Cheltenham Festival showed, is finding it impossible to compete successfully with the Irish who not only have a bunch of brilliant trainers but big-money owners who are acquiring the best horses and who profit more by racing them in the Irish system. They have the competition at home to know what quality they have got: too many of the best English horses are not being honed the same way in competition with their peers. All praise, then, to Paul Nicholls for sending Frodon over into enemy territory to win a crucial Grade One battle early in the season.
But it doesn’t have to be all gloom. There are things to look back on with pleasure from 2021, first and foremost the return of crowds to the racecourse. There was the emergence of William Haggas’s unbeaten star Baaeed, who could yet be a superstar. There was a genuinely thrilling and exhausting battle for the Flat jockeys’ championship between Oisin Murphy and William Buick. Leading the Godolphin operation, the self-effacing and ever-available Charlie Appleby sent out Adayar to become the first horse since Galileo to win the Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, while his Hurricane Lane took the Irish Derby and the St Leger: nobody more deserves the champion trainers’ title.
Jane Chapple-Hyam with Saffron Beach, Ed Walker with Starman, Alan King with Trueshan and the William Muir/Chris Grassick duo with Pyledriver deservedly joined the Group One Club and we all enjoyed the success of trainer William Jarvis and agent to the stars Emma Banks with the not-always-lucky filly Lady Bowthorpe. On Champions’ Day Lady Bowthorpe could finish only third but Emma Banks earned the quote of the year award for her comment: ‘I’m the only person here without an oil well.’