I was once at a racing dinner in York where a distinguished clergyman in attendance was invited to say grace. ‘I won’t, if you don’t mind,’ he told our hosts. ‘I would rather not draw the Almighty’s attention to my presence here.’ There is a slight whiff of rascality about the racing scene which deters some from participation, although even that can have its plus side. When one trainer friend found himself, through no fault of his own, involved in a scandal story, I asked him if it was affecting the number of owners sending him horses. If anything, he told me, it was putting his numbers up. ‘Some people want to demonstrate their faith in my integrity. Others rather hope that there is something a bit dodgy about me.’
What got me thinking about racing’s image was a depressing report revealing that the numbers going racing have declined for the fourth year in a row with the average attendance per meeting dropping from 4,256 to 3,898. Of course those meetings include wet Tuesdays at all-weather tracks which make little pretence of being crowd-pleasing events but are staged merely to keep the betting-shop tills ticking over. But with politicians increasingly sensing a PR benefit in bashing the gambling industry on which racing depends, and the more extreme animal-welfare activists winning ever more media attention, racing is under threat.
The threats can be seen off not least because racing remains the most instantly sociable sport of all. Your companion or client doesn’t have to keep quiet for 90 minutes while a game is played: instead it is ‘How did yours do in the last? What do you fancy for the next?’ Racing is about physical prowess, speed and spectacle. It glows with colour and highlights courage and character. Unshackled by the rulebook intricacies of intensively refereed team sport, it is the pursuit of perfection in its simplest form: who will pass the post first?
Above all else, racing is about the horse: the oohs and aahs sucked spontaneously out of the crowd by the breathtaking boldness of a champion steeplechaser soaring over a fence. Sandown Park’s Betway Contenders Day last Saturday reflected that spirit by parading between races three of the racecourse stars we have loved: Sire de Grugy, Barbers Shop and Cue Card, all looking magnificent still in retirement.
Racing is about new arrivals too and victory for Olly Murphy’s Itchy Feet in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, ridden by Gavin Sheehan, was a significant moment. It marked the first Grade One victory for one of the fastest-emerging trainer talents jump racing has yet encountered. Olly, the son of former trainer Anabel King and bloodstock agent Aiden, and formerly an assistant to Gordon Elliott at his Irish winner factory, only set up as a trainer near Stratford-upon-Avon in July 2017. Within 20 days of sending out his first winner he had produced eight more, including four in one day. He trained 47 winners in his first season and 82 in 2018–19 and now has more than 100 stable inmates including potential stars from leading owners such as J.P. McManus, Diana and Grahame Whateley and Itchy Feet’s owners Kate and Andrew Brooks. Understanding owners are vital and it was nice to hear Andrew Brooks, for whom it was also a first Grade One success, tell his beaming but slightly tearful young trainer ‘just enjoy it’ as he left him to face the eager media attention.
Olly Murphy began making headlines with the sheer number of his early successes but now the quality is beginning to flow as well. ‘I’m not an emotional person but that meant a lot,’ he said of Itchy Feet’s performance in only his second chase. ‘There’s been a lot of pressure on me since I’ve been training because I was lucky to start so well, and the expectation levels to win a Grade One get bigger and bigger. This was a well-executed plan and hopefully it’s the first of many.’
Olly Murphy’s Warren Chase yard is not far from the other fast-advancing yard where Dan Skelton sends out so many winners ridden by his brother Harry. The arrival on the scene of the Somerset-based Martin Pipe and Paul Nicholls years ago switched some jumping attention away from Nicky Henderson’s Lambourn. Both Dan Skelton and Olly Murphy make no secret of their desire to get to the very top and now racing folk are talking of Warwickshire becoming ‘the new Somerset’. Murphy paid tribute to jockey Gavin Sheehan for what he called ‘a masterclass of a ride’ on Itchy Feet and it is proving a benefit season for the 27-year-old jockey who is retained to ride the Brooks’s horses and who scored impressively for them at Cheltenham on Simply The Betts. When Warren Greatrex, for whom Gavin had been stable jockey, came to a ‘when available’ arrangement for champion Richard Johnson to ride the best of his horses it looked as though Sheehan’s career could have gone into decline. Instead he is now heading for his first century of winners this season.