This weekend I’m getting married; the good news is there will be no dodgy tips coming from this correspondent for the next month, but the bad news is I will start by getting a bit emotional and soppy. My fiancée, Charyn, and I met at the races, you see. It was Punchestown Racecourse at their annual April festival and we were both supposed to be working. We got distracted by each other and, later this week, I fly back to Ireland to marry Charyn at Trinity College in Dublin, where she studied. I’m not sure how many other romances have been forged on racecourse but my good friend Seb Vance from RUK marries his racing broadcasting fiancée Aly Rowell later this month, too, in Greece. The crusty old hacks in the press room won’t know where to look once the National Hunt season is underway with soppy lovers infiltrating their cold hearts!
While on honeymoon, I will be missing the St Leger meeting at Doncaster. I’ve long had an affection for the four days at Donny in September and will miss my usual lodgings in the Crown Hotel at Bawtry, which is a village that goes into Leger overdrive. Perhaps the Leger isn’t the most fashionable meeting of the Summer but it’s undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable with as knowledgeable a racing crowd on Town Moor as anywhere in the country. Plus, it’s a brilliant racing surface — one of the fairest in the country and so it’s little surprise that horses such as Frankel graduated from Doncaster wins en route to glorious careers.
Talk of Frankel at Donny reminds me of a tale that I’m allowed to share at the expense of a wedding guest and good friend of mine, Dave Stevens at Coral. He holds what must be a unique record of being the only punter ever to have lost money betting on a horse that was never beaten: after seeing the Henry Cecil-trained colt scoot up in a two-year-old race, Dave approached me asking for a bet. “That horse will win the Derby,” he confidently proclaimed — and bravely put his money were his mouth was. Famously, Frankel bypassed the Derby, winning practically ever other race worth winning over the next couple of years, and poor Dave never backed Frankel again.
On a more serious note, there’s been an elevated level of debate lately about the use, or mis-use, of the whip in frenzied race finishes. Jockeys are racking up bans but being allowed to keep races. For what it’s worth, my views on this are pretty straightforward but by no means uncontroversial: firstly, there’s a place for the whip in racing. Before the animal right activists turn up to disrupt my wedding service, though, I’d like to qualify my views by stressing that the whip is for correction rather than punishment and over-use of the whip is abhorrent. Indeed, I would be far stricter than the rules currently are and would implement them with a zero-tolerance approach.
Any jockey breaking the rules in a race should lose the race and receive their ban. Draconian? I certainly hope so, but I hate to see cheating go relatively unpunished and misuse of the whip is cheating, plain and simple. There will be plenty of examples where punters and connections will feel hard done to, but we need to learn to live with that. The sooner the rules are respected — and the respect for the horses is paramount here — the better.
American Pharoah succumbed to the infamous graveyard of champions when sensationally being beaten at Saratoga in the Travers Stakes last weekend. And in doing so, he immediately secured his place in my affections more deeply than hitherto. I’ve oft written about the real glory being in responding to defeat and stepping into the unknown. Well, if American Pharoah is given the chance to restore his reputation, possibly at the Breeders’ Cup in a couple of months, he will do so with more love than he had when he was an unbeaten Triple Crown winner. If, instead, he is packed off to the breeding barn without being given a shot at redemption, I shall lose the faith and wish for an early return of National Hunt racing!
See you on the other side, and have a lovely September.