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Monday, March 15, 2010

Get Set for the Cheltenham Festival

Less than 24 hours to go before the Olympics of National Hunt racing begins.

Here’s my piece from the Daily Express, on the wonderfully retro world of horse-racing and a hare-brained scheme to change, modernise and spoil this fantastic sport.

AND they’re off! The roar from the crowd will be ­deafening as the annual Cheltenham National Hunt Festival gets under way at 1.30pm tomorrow afternoon. Thousands of racing fans – myself included – will be converging on the Cotswolds for four days of thrilling action, featuring the finest horses and jockeys in the world.

No one knows for sure who will win the big prizes but one thing is for certain: an unforgettable week of sporting drama lies ahead.

Horse racing appeals not just because of its excitement but because it is wonderfully, splendidly and ­defiantly old-fashioned. It is the one sport in Britain that hasn’t changed significantly in the past 30 years.

During that time football has gone from being the “People’s Game”, where ordinary spectators could stand and watch a match for a few pounds, to an expensive plaything of mega-rich foreign owners. Cricket has been transformed from a gentle, un-commercialised sport into one where players wear brightly coloured pyjamas and the names of corporate sponsors appear on the pitch. ­Rugby league, once the mainstay of cold, winter afternoons, is now, due to the dictates of television, played in summer. Only racing has stayed true to its roots.

Step on to any racecourse in Britain and you feel as if you have gone back several decades in time.

The first things you will notice are the clothes that people are wearing. The racetrack is just about the only place in modern Britain where you still see people wearing matching tweed jackets and trousers and, on their heads, trilbies or big Twenties-style newsboy flat caps.

They are also about the only place where, in this ferociously anti-­smoking and politically correct age, you will still see people puffing happily away on big cigars.

Then there’s the sport’s gloriously rich terminology, which hasn’t changed since the days of Queen Victoria. A horse who is described as a “bit of a monkey” doesn’t have an chimpanzee for a father but lacks resolution in a finish. And the “jolly” isn’t a visiting clown but the horse that starts as favourite.

Racing’s fractional odds, unchanged by decimalisation, have a charm all of their own. Put a pound on a horse that wins at odds of 100-30 (or Burlington Bertie in betting slang) and you’ll receive £3.30 profit. Or perhaps you fancy a flutter on an outsider, say at 33-1 (Double Carpet), giving you, if successful, £33 profit for every pound staked.

The unusual odds add to the mystique of the sport, as do the great array of colourful characters that racing has always attracted. In his book Racing’s Greatest Characters, Graham Sharpe tells of such fabulous figures as the tipster Prince Monolulu, who, “dressed in baggy trousers, a flamboyant waistcoat and with spectacular plumage round his head”, became a national icon in the ­Twenties.
Famous for his cry “I gotta horse!”, Monolulu told some racegoers he was a Prince from the Falasha Tribe of Abyssinia and others that he was a Zulu chieftain. In fact he was a former circus fire-eater of Scottish descent called Peter Carl McKay.

Today, while such larger-than-life characters as Prince Monolulu have disappeared from society at large, they can still be seen at the racetrack. What other sport can boast someone like Sir Mark Prescott, the splendidly Victorian, cigar-chewing, hare-coursing baronet, who has­ ­reserved three burial plots at his ­local cemetery to ensure that when he dies he is not buried next to someone who disapproves of blood sports?

Or Prescott’s fellow Old Harrovian Sir Rupert Mackeson, a former smuggler in central Africa who now sells racing prints at Britain’s racetracks. Then there’s Harry “The Dog” Findlay, the exuberant Cockney gambler and owner of the popular 2008 Gold Cup winner Denman. And, of course, John McCririck.

But sadly the wonderfully retro world of horse racing is under threat from the serial modernisers who have already destroyed so much of what was colourful about the ­Britain of yesteryear.

In 2008, the racing authorities, in a misguided attempt to increase the sport’s appeal, commissioned a ­report by the brand consultants Harrison Fraser. The report was a classic example of modern marketing waffle. The trouble with racing, a sport loved by millions, was that it is too much like “Brian” and not enough like “Ben”.
Consultant John Harrison explained: “If racing came to life as a person we think it would be a bit of a Brian. Brian is traditional and British and thinks in quite an old-minded way. Five years in the future, if you have created the ideal racing experience for everybody, the ­picture is of a Ben industry. Ben is younger-minded than Brian, more worldly, in touch with a new generation.”
Ben, the model new racegoer, is described as “cool and fresh”, “intelligent” and someone who is “athletic” and “speaks many languages”. To me, Ben sounds like the sort of smug, bumptious know-it-all any sane person would emigrate to avoid, let alone want to meet at the races. And that’s not even the worst of it. There’s worse in the pipleine.

Racing For Change, a body set up to make racing “relevant to the ­leisure consumer of today”, has ­announced 10 measures designed to bring “positive change for the sport and its customers”. Among the proposed changes are putting the first names of trainers and jockeys in race cards and replacing traditional odds, which date from the mid-1700s, with decimal odds. The group also calls for race names to be “simplified” and racecourse announcements “modernised”.

Unbelievably, Racing For Change feels that the fact that only trainers’ initials and surnames are in race cards and that odds are given in fractions alienates potential racegoers. What utter poppycock.

The whole “modernising” agenda is fundamentally flawed. A large part of the appeal of horse racing is ­precisely that it is out of step with the times. Going to the races – with its old-fashioned dress, its old-fashioned terminology and old-fashioned atmosphere, provides a perfect sanctuary from the boring blandness of modern, globalised, 21st ­century Britain.

Millions of us love horse racing ­exactly how it is. That’s why so many of us will be heading to Cheltenham this week. Only please, please don’t tell Ben.


Mr. Piccolo said...

Great article. Even though I cannot say I follow horse racing very thoroughly, I really enjoy both horse racing and greyhound racing very much and I try to get to the tracks a few times during the summer.

Although horse racing in Britain sounds much more interesting than racing here in the States, I think I understand where you are coming from. The race track is one of the few places I can go for an outing without having to face hordes of metrosexual yuppie types, although there are a few at the track, there are still plenty of old-school race fans.

Hopefully the people who run racing will choose not to transform the sport to appeal to the yuppie crowd, which I suspect will inevitably mean pricing the sport out of the reach of working-class people (admission to the race track is still relatively cheap where I live).

By the way, another sport that I think is still somewhat old fashioned is boxing. Most of the Lads' Mag types I know have switched over to mixed martial arts, and consider boxing an "old man's sport." Which is fine with me, I hope it stays that way.

Robin Carmody said...

Let's get a few things clear: I do, on the whole, enjoy horse racing, just as I like riding rather slower horses for fun. But this is with multiple caveats: the sport, for all your defence of its supposedly classless camaraderie, is still riddled with snobbery and insularity (I believe it still distinguishes amateur riders by calling them "Mr", nearly half a century after cricket got rid of that distinction). And the sports you view with such a rosy tint had many faults - football grounds were allowed to decay for years and many became unsafe, and cricket had the aforementioned snobbery ... while O'Sullevan, Oaksey and Brough Scott were/are all undoubtedly good Tory wets, with the sense of obligation and noblesse oblige that the Cameronites lack (O'Sullevan's work for horse welfare and Oaksey's for the Injured Jockeys' Fund are exceptional and deserve all the more praise precisely because neither of them had to do it), you have to set that against kneejerk right-wing blowhards like McCririck, not to mention Lester Piggott who I think hinted in the mid-70s that he might support a military coup, and Peter Bromley who would shout at the top of his voice in English if French technicians said something he didn't like when he was commentating on the Arc ... surely you, as a socialist, aren't standing up for what is merely the posh equivalent of "canteen culture"?

More generally, I can recognise that if a sport becomes ossified, it dies (cricket has come close more than once). The fact is that the culture *has* changed, people *do* have wider and broader interests, people *are* more disconnected from horses and "the land" than they used to be. If reforms in racing blow out the cobwebs of a landed gentry that most people don't recognise or understand anymore (is there really any reason why racecourse announcements after a photo finish should say "first number 6, second number 3" as if everyone's looking at the race card? They manage to name the actual horses in Ireland with no problems) then it's all for the best. I would agree if it was, say, Horizon being produced in a populist style to appeal to people who are never likely to watch it in the first place, but that programme embodied a set of values - a liberal approach to the sciences, a determination to know more and more as time goes on - which are worth defending, whereas the old order of racing merely represents a "bluff", "jovial" exterior which often hides some nasty prejudices (which sadly seem to be endemic in the horse world - the woman who runs the stables I go to goes on about "Pakis" "sponging") which should be destroyed for good.

Did you oppose the founding of the British Horseracing Board in 1993 to take over many of the Jockey Club's functions? Would you have kept Rothbury going in the 1960s with its one meeting a year? This is the point - if you never change anything, you end up with nothing, because something that is static will fail more and more to resonate. I'm looking forward to Cheltenham, but while I enjoy the sport (with reservations) it has a lot of things attached to it which need to be eliminated. This isn't giving into the demands of Coca-Cola, McDonald's or the CIA, just sensible, progressive left-wing thinking. I mean, the very fact of Kauto Star's background is a sign that things have changed ... in The Fellow's day, did you used to go on about "bloody French horses with Polish riders coming here and winning our races, it shouldn't be allowed"? I can bet many readers of and writers for the Daily Express did ...

Robin Carmody said...

Mr Piccolo: I don't want prices at racecourses to increase either (and I want those at football to be reduced) but changes to racing wouldn't be against the working class (the new generation of which would probably take much more interest if they took full effect - racing simply isn't a mass working-class interest in the UK these days, any more than clog dancing is, and you can't wish that out of existence - you'll suffer for it in the end if you do), they would rather reduce the residual institutional power of the upper class, most of whom are not the benevolent smiling squires that Neil Clark still dreams of.

Douglas said...

I'd like to think I'd like Sir Mark Prescott.

There's a movement afoot to change American football to reduce the number and severity of concussions players experience. I don't know if it will succeed or not.

There was a time in American football when quarterbacks called all the plays, in addition to executing them. Then the coaches took over by means of "messenger guards," communicating plays by means of substitution. Now the plays are called by "coordinators" watching the game from the top of the stadium. The more clever the game has become, the less the players play it. Is this progress?

Geoffrey Woollard said...

Sir Mark Prescott, Bart., and his boozy sidekick, Clarissa Dickson Wrong, both favour hare coursing, one of the most disgusting so-called 'sports' known to man. Sir Mark also favours bull-fighting, probably the most disgusting so-called 'sport' known to man. I live near Newmarket and I don't want to be buried within a million miles of Sir Mark Prescott. He should grow up before he grows any older and dies.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the few issues on which I part company with Neil. I can't bear horse racing or the races crowd. It works on the same sort of principle as banking, siphoning off pooled money, and, as Robin says, they're a bunch of right wing so-and sos.

- questionnaire

Robin Carmody said...

Not to mention Neil's apparent implication that being intelligent and speaking many languages are somehow a bad thing - not a stance any socialist should take (I think I said this before but it doesn't seem to have got through).

It is one thing to believe in an Old Labour / Tory wet alliance, quite another to make common cause with a bunch of ultra-right-wing reactionaries simply because they don't drink Coca-Cola and don't wear baseball caps. And, if the comments of a friend of mine in York are anything to go by, the non-posh racegoers are just as bad.

Robin Carmody said...

a propos Cheltenham itself, I can't help thinking the Gold Cup is a quite different race when it rains, especially if the ground has already been watered in the expectation that it won't - in those conditions ('08 and '10), it becomes more of a slog suited to the traditional steeplechaser, whereas when it's dry ('07 and '09) it's much more of a modern race, somehow, and therefore much better for Kauto Star.

I think the more fervent reception the Cheltenham crowd gives to Denman and Imperial Commander (which I wouldn't deny - they've both given amazing performances) shows their essential traditionalism - Kauto may be seen as something of an intruder, being French-bred and noticeably slighter in build than traditional chasers. Kauto seems to be more loved at Kempton, which being where it is probably has a younger, more metropolitan crowd - more "Bens", so to speak.