This is the 325th edition of the Wayward Lad blog.
I’ve been occupied these past couple of weeks entertaining my 8yo son (whom I hardly see as he lives with his mum in far-west Cornwall, over 300 miles from me). Hence, my blog has been a bit quiet. Please accept my apologies.
There have been some developments in horseracing recently – developments that cannot be overlooked.
Last week we had the announcement of a 4-year ban on established “front-rank” jumps trainer Howard Johnson. He was found guilty of actions that were detrimental to a racehorse’s welfare, whilst in his care. Personally, I found the 4-year ban out of kilter with other recent disciplinary measures – such as the much shorter ban for doping handed-out last year to Nicky Henderson. I understand that there are measures of responsibility involved but, in my opinion, “bans” must be realistic and consistent if “horseracing” is to provide an acceptable face to the general public as well as its own community. A 4-year ban in any sport is pretty conclusive – and so it proved to Howard Johnson, as he immediately announced his retirement. I was saddened by this as it must be remembered that Johnson (thru’ his stable) brought “champion” hurdler Inglis Drever back from a career-threatening injury to win not one, but two further World Hurdle races at the Cheltenham Festival. Yes, he made an error of judgment but, given his career history, are horses in his care fundamentally at risk? And is that risk enough to warrant his removal from the sport entirely? We’ve all seen the “riots” on tv last week, but are all those apprehended to be tarred with the same brush irrespective of the level of their individual crime? If you say yes to that, then we as a nation should apply the same level of blame in all areas – in other words, if you are guilty then there are no half-measures of punishment. However, I think that our strength as a nation is that we are compassionate, and the level of punishment levied at Howard Johnson was – in my opinion - over-the-top.
This week (yesterday, in fact) we’ve had the announcement of further modifications to the Aintree Grand National course, made in the effort to make the course “safer”. Some fences have been reduced in height and, at some fences – including Bechers Brook – the level of the “landing” side of the fence has been raised. After this year’s race was marred by the deaths of two horses, there was much media attention on whether it was worth it. At the time, and it has been repeated in media reports today, it was reported that more than half the number of fallers in the race occurred in the 1st-6 fences, ie up to and including Bechers Brook on the 1st circuit of the National. Jockeys and Trainers, as well as those experienced in “Jump” racing all sang from the same hymn sheet in blaming the speed the horses ran at over those 1st-6 fences as being the primary contributory factor of the fallers. With fallers comes the potential of injury and, in the case of broken bones, the death of the horse.
In my opinion, reducing the height of some fences and making then more inviting to jump by increasing the height of the “kick-board” in front of the fence will just mean the horses will run faster over the 1st-6 fences. As such, raising the level of the landing side will have no effect in reducing the number of fallers that fall due to the speed they are travelling at and, as the horses will be travelling quicker, the potential for injury will be increased.
There is always a risk involved with racing. It seems some people have already forgotten the scenes at Ascot a few weeks ago when Rewilding broke a leg when running at full speed in front of the stands. That was a “Flat” race by-the-way, and one of the most prestigious flat races of the season in Europe.
The hidden agenda for the Grand National is its future demise and removal from the racing calendar. In chipping away at its reason for being, support for the race within the industry will wither as it ceases to be the historic spectacular of past years. There is already apathy towards the event from some bookmakers, and the BBC only televise it because they feel obliged to. If racing wants to preserve the race and guarantee its future then it needs to think outside the box.
The pace of the race over the initial mile must be reduced. That could be done by:-
(a) fixing it’s date in the calendar. If it is always run on the last Saturday in March, that should provide softer (and slower) going. [The Gold Cup at Cheltenham could be run 15 days earlier – again, fixed in the calendar.] Another possibility is:-
(b) to move the starting position to a point alongside the Melling Road on the ‘back-straight’ of the Mildmay course. That way, the distance of race could be maintained but, rather than a sprint in a straight-line to the 1st-fence, the runners would have to negotiate a sharp left-turn after a furlong which should slow them enough to approach the 1st-fence at a more moderate gallop.
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