Robin Oakley

North-south divide

A single crowd-pulling hero could break the south’s stranglehold on jump racing

The well-bred Sea Pigeon, who had finished seventh in the Derby when trained at Beckhampton by Jeremy Tree, was later bought by the wine and spirits importer Pat Muldoon to go into training over hurdles with Gordon W. Richards in Penrith. The story goes that on his first foray out of his new northern yard, the gelding who was to become one of the greatest hurdlers we have seen stopped still in shock at the sight before him: it was the first time he had ever encountered a cow.

Many find the north is a different place. As one who cut his journalistic teeth in Liverpool, I go with Tennyson’s verdict: ‘Bright and fierce and fickle is the South/ And dark and true and tender is the North’. Now racing’s authorities are worrying about jump racing in general and about jump racing in the north in particular. A review led by the former Cheltenham managing director Edward Gillespie has studied such problems as the decline in field sizes, the drop in jump-racing attendances and horse ownership compared with the Flat and the widening gap between Flat and jumping prize money. In particular, it noted that there is no aspirational meeting in the north other than Aintree at the end of the season to encourage northern owners and trainers and that the north has seen a sharp decrease both in the share of jump horses in training and its share of top-quality horses. A British Horseracing Authority task force will seek remedies.

Life has been tough for northern trainers for some time. No northern-based handler has been champion trainer since the 1983–84 season. Fred Winter took his last title to Lambourn in 1984–85 before his former assistant Nicky Henderson, also based in the Valley of the Racehorse, gained the first two of his three titles in the next two seasons.

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