Whatever the outcome of the election on 12 December, it is unlikely to bring joy to the racing community. Conservatives and Labour are planning to review or replace the Gambling Act and they won’t be doing so intending to increase the amounts trousered by the bookmakers. Sadly, the way things have long been organised means it is the size of the gambling industry’s takings that determine how much filters down to finance the sport. Labour and the Liberal Democrats plan, too, to review jockeys’ use of the whip for ‘encouragement’.
It is no surprise that the puritans have long had it in for racing: the sport’s biggest sponsors used to be the drinks industry with the likes of the Whitbread, Mackeson and Hennessy Gold Cups. Nowadays it is the big betting companies that dominate. Last weekend saw the Winter Carnival at Newbury sponsored by Ladbrokes; Betfair sponsored the first big prize of the season at Haydock; while bet365 will bookend the jumping season proper at Sandown. All are welcome and the £250,000 prize money for the Ladbrokes Trophy last Saturday, the most important handicap after the Grand National, could hardly have gone to a more popular winner than De Rasher Counter, trained by Emma Lavelle and part-owned by the blind Andrew Gemmell, whose Paisley Park had retained his unbeaten record in winning Ladbrokes long-distance hurdle the day before.
Emma, whose Hang In There got our Twelve to Follow off to a good start the other day winning at 6–1, has shrewdly and steadily built up the quality of her stable inmates and since her move to the stables at Ogbourne Maizey, once home to Sir Gordon Richards and Bob Turnell, she has enjoyed what she calls ‘a grown-up training place’ redesigned by her husband Barry Fenton. Giving her thanks on Saturday to the bank of Mum and Dad and HSBC for providing the wherewithal, she said: ‘We’ve had some lovely results and it has enabled us to nurture the horses a bit better.’ She also happens to be a very good trainer.
The great Australian handler Bart Cummings once declared that horses should be given lots of time ‘because that’s one thing we have plenty of’ and with De Rasher Counter Emma did precisely that. After the Ladbrokes Trophy win she told us: ‘We could not have had De Rasher Counter in better shape going into this but we could not say whether he was good enough until he got out there. He quite patently showed that he was. We could have taken this horse to Cheltenham last year, but mentally we didn’t think he was ready for it and the owners were prepared to wait, with this as the target. It is just magical when it comes off because so often it doesn’t.’
The other factor in De Rasher Counter’s success was the presence on his back of 5lb-claiming conditional rider Ben Jones, who was scoring his 16th success from 60 rides since the start of September. Only just 20, Ben had the confidence to take his horse into the lead four fences out, having had him perfectly placed with the leading bunch and in a nice rhythm for most of the way. After the race the young rider, the son of former rider Dai Jones, now clerk of the course at Ffos, coped with the onrush of media attention with considerable poise and good humour. These days jockeys who are going to make it to the top need those skills, too. They also need a little luck, and young Ben seems to have that too: he only got the Ladbrokes ride because Emma’s first-choice jockey Adam Wedge had to go to Newcastle last Saturday to ride Silver Streak for his retaining stable of Evan Williams. Ben only turned conditional three months ago but had already attracted attention with a treble at Hereford and an Ascot win on the useful hurdler Gumball for the Philip Hobbs stable to which he is attached. He is only one of a talented crop of young riders from Wales — including Richard Patrick, Lorcan Williams and James Bowen — to have benefited from a background in the pony-racing circuit and point-to-points.
Best Mate’s trainer Henrietta Knight, whose words carry real weight on any aspect of horseracing, has produced an intriguing new book based on interviews with more than 80 jump jockeys about their entry into the sport. She clearly sees an advantage in Ben Jones’s kind of grounding, together with hunting, quoting the inimitable Paul Carberry: ‘If hunting had been a professional sport I would have given up race riding.’ She approves of those who are horsemen first and jockeys second, quoting Nico de Boinville, who worries that too many young lads today want to be jockeys without learning to ride with a proper length of leg, and Michael Dickinson who says that all National Hunt riders should have a spell in show-jumping too. Would-be top riders should ask for Starting From Scratch (Racing Post, £20) in their Christmas stocking.