|It was, sacrilegiously, at
Cheltenham just a few years ago that a mate of mine, one of the team that
writes the official form book, sniffed derisively and offered his opinion that
jump racing had, at most, a couple more decades to live. It would fold
inevitably, he felt, as more and more people realised that it was a hopelessly
outmoded entertainment, like hunting.
|I was shocked at the suggestion that
something I enjoyed so much might have such a short shelf life but, happily, it
turns out he was spouting hot air (which would be useful at Cheltenham, as
visitors today will discover). Jump racing seems confident in its own
popularity and the recent marketing initiative aimed at improving the sport's
image has been very largely concerned with making the Flat as accessible and
attractive as the winter game.
Here, then, is a countdown of the
reasons why jump racing does it better.
"natural amphitheatre" cliche does not quite hold true. Cheltenham is a lot
bigger than Sandown, where you really can watch them all the way round, and the
far side of the course is a long way off. Unless you have binoculars, you're
going to be looking at the big screen a fair bit.
Still, it's hard to
think of anywhere that makes a better fist of all the things a racecourse
should do. It regularly brings together the best competitors. The undulations
and stiff fences provide a thorough test, while the uphill finish generates
drama as the leader gets tired. The knowledgeable, enthusiastic crowd provides
tangible atmosphere. Trainers and jockeys know they haven't arrived until
they've won here.
|None of the Flat-only tracks fills
the stage as comfortably as Cheltenham. Newmarket has history and tradition but
rather lets down the casual spectator for every race, the runners start
far away and run towards you. Epsom has one big day, Goodwood puts too much of
a premium on luck in running, York doesn't get the quality of runner it
deserves. Results at any Flat track can be affected by draw bias, a factor
mercifully absent over the jumps.
But any fan of sport should be able
to enjoy themselves at Cheltenham. There is nowhere else like it, in this life
or the next.
One of the Racing Post's senior writers
regularly argues that part of the appeal of jump racing is the fact that it's a
dangerous sport in a world that has become obsessed with health and safety.
Personally, I don't buy that. I'm quite risk-averse myself and so, I
bet, is the Post's writer. I'm comfortable in a world in which asbestos is no
longer used in house-building and employers will be brought up short if they
subject their employees to unnecessary peril. Like most people, I have no
desire to see my sporting heroes put their health at risk.
those obstacles mean that the winner of a jumps race has obviously achieved
something, in a sense that does not apply to a Flat race. If you win a
six-furlong maiden, it is almost certainly because you're a faster horse than
your rivals, a trait you probably inherited from your high-achieving parents.
But speed alone will not get it done over the jumps, where a moment's loss of
concentration can take you out of the race.
An image that has stayed
with me is of a happily mud-spattered Richard Guest and Red Marauder leaning
against each other after winning the 2001 Grand National, in which only four
finished. No horse or jockey has ever had to work so hard for a victory on the
Flat, which is why it's so difficult to imagine Flat-racing types as heroic.
There is heroism to spare over the jumps. You can find it even
or, I should say, especially at Sedgefield on a wet Wednesday in
December. It makes those involved much easier to love.
This would have been a much harder argument to advance in the
years when Martin Pipe dominated jump racing. The master of Pond House never
knowingly disclosed his plans to the press or public until the entries were
revealed, but he's retired and his son, David, who now holds the licence, is
significantly more open with followers of the sport.
As a general rule,
jumps trainers will consent to discuss their horses freely and at length with
the media and, thereby, the public. The new champion, Paul Nicholls, sets a
superb example, giving up a large part of his time to journalists, despite the
pressures of running such a busy, high-profile stable. He does his best to map
out clear plans for his horses and to give some idea of a pecking order. If one
of his gets injured, he will not simply sit on the news until it leaks out
The younger generation of Flat trainers is also much
more comfortable with the media than would have been the case in the past, but
the example set for them by Sir Michael Stoute and Aidan O'Brien is poor. Both
are very reluctant interviewees, sparing with any enlightening information
about their stars.
There is pressure on the major Flat trainers to clam
up, applied by the thrice-accursed bloodstock industry. If there is even the
slightest chance that your colt might end up as a stallion, then you daren't
utter so much as a word against it for fear of harming its earning potential.
You might think him lazy, quirky, a bit slow, but in your dealings with the
outside world he will always be "really promising, full of potential and so
much natural speed".
There are few turn-offs greater than the suspicion
that you are being led up the garden path. Flat racing is far too content to
leave its supporters feeling that way.
other major crime committed by the bloodstock industry against the sport from
which it feeds is the constant robbing of young talent from the Flat. If a
horse becomes a champion at the age of three, it has no future other than 20
years in the breeding shed. Fans have no sooner got used to the sight of him
than he's gone forever. The turnover of top-class racers is baffling to
newcomers, depressing to older hands.
"Wow, that Zarkava's a bit good,
isn't she? The way she brushed those colts aside. What? Off to stud, you say?
Never mind, here comes Sea The Stars, he's pretty quick too! What a pity he
didn't get to race against her, though at least he'll get to mate with her,
because now he's off to stud as well. Now here comes St Nicholas Abbey
wow! He looks really good. I wonder how he'd compare to Sea The Stars. What a
Comparing the champions of one generation with those of
another is a pretty futile game, but it's the only one open to fans of the
Flat, because there is almost no chance that a good horse will stay in training
long enough to meet the next big thing.
How lucky, then, is jump racing
to have stars whose stud value is nil, for reasons that may possibly seem a bit
cruel to the newcomer.
After the Derby,
which comes early in a horse's career, Flat racing offers an impressive array
of potential targets for a good horse. That's dandy if you're the owner or
trainer, trying to find races that will suit your horse without exposing him to
much risk of defeat an enterprise in which you will be assisted by the
trainers of other good horses, who will not want to race against you.
It is not nearly such good news if you want to see the best horses take
each other on, assuming there is more than one good horse on show that year and
that they come from different stables. They might as well be sorting out the
good races between them: "I'll take the Irish Derby and the King George, you
have the Eclipse and the Irish Champion. We'll make like we're both going for
the Arc and get people all excited, but then you get a leg two days before and
go for the Breeders' Cup instead."
If you're a good jumper, your target
will be at the Cheltenham Festival and, if there's anything your trainer can do
about it, you'll turn up there in March, ready to run for your life against all
the other good horses in your category. Then, we'll find out who's best.
Fans of jump racing never have to die wondering.