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.