Of all the fortnights in the calendar year that leave me most frustrated, the middle of July is top of the pops when it comes to getting my goat. That’s right — a fortnight that takes in the enchantment of the July Festival at Newmarket, a wonderful weekend card at Ascot, a fiercely competitive John Smith’s Cup at York and the house-full signs up at Chester, Salisbury and more.
So why am I so irked by this? Well it’s simple really: each of those terrific features takes place this coming Saturday, with the July Meeting on the leafy July course in Newmarket reaching its pinnacle at the weekend. And next weekend? Well, very little indeed, if we are entirely honest. Next Saturday is a relative famine after the feasts of this weekend.
Ever since Newmarket abandoned its preference for midweek racing and snatched at the weekend prize (or lager-swilling racegoers, on whom the beauty of one of the most delightful tracks in the land is all too often lost), we’ve faced this fortnight of boom and bust. There are only so many good jockeys to go round, and big names will be in short supply at Chester, Salisbury and even York this weekend. The paying public go to see the biggest names week in, week out, and something needs to be done urgently in the next 12 months to prevent a continuation of a fixture list that appears not to know one end from the other.
I received a call from The Sun’s Claude Duval last week. He had written “war and peace” (his words) on Victoria Pendleton’s upcoming racecourse debut in a charity race at Newbury and was in a terrible spin. “The news pages have pinched it,” lamented the racing hack. “I need to fill an empty page.”
He duly filled it, but I was left to reflect on how marvellous it really was that racing was leaping off its parish pages and into the mainstream news of Britain’s biggest selling tabloid. Here was a young, home-grown Olympic hero who was getting involved in racing. Racing was enjoying its moment in the sun, free from scandal and able to revel in a genuine upbeat story.
It felt almost too good to be true. Well, this is racing and so it was. The past few days have seen a handful of jockeys, not to mention a multitude of faceless social media commentators, mutter their disapproval at Pendleton “jumping the queue” en route to a tilt at the amateur riders’ Foxhunters’ Chase at next season’s Cheltenham Festival.
“All those hard-working folk in yards up and down the land will be upset they’ve been leapfrogged,” was the general tone. Criticism was also reserved for the betting firm who are bank-rolling Pendleton as she continues her journey. Questions were even raised as to the legitimacy of a sponsored jockey seeking to ride in the amateur race.
The questions are valid, but the sport’s ability to shoot itself in the fetlock by cocking a snook at good publicity knows no bounds. Ultimately, here we have a household name with a smile on her face being jocked up at the big tracks in front of a waiting media, who are ready to be positive. We don’t get shots at the PR title like this all that often and we’d be fools to squeeze all the fun and joy out of what is a great tale.
Well, I feared the worst in the Eclipse: I worried about it being a non-event with just the five runners, but instead we were treated to a thrilling duel as The Grey Gatsby served it up to our colt of the moment, Golden Horn, in terrific style. They battled it out up the straight in as truly a fought Group 1-finish as we can hope to enjoy. In doing so, Golden Horn has become the first horse to earn a rating of 130+ since a certain Frankel all those (was it only 3?) years ago.
Our next stop on the Golden Horn highway is likely to be the King George at the end of the month. My fondest memory of that race in recent years was Galileo’s victory over Fantastic Light in 2001, when I was lounging in the cheap seats on my University Summer holidays. It left an indelible impression. I’m off my betting at the moment but I’d not be at all surprised if Saturday’s Eclipse did something similar for a student or two. Let’s hope they keep coming back.
I’m in the last-chance saloon and officially on the cold-list after drawing a blank again last weekend. I’m looking back to look forward and plumping for my old pal Speculative Bid this weekend. Those with a long memory will remember he came good for us in the Victoria Cup earlier this season and he has the profile to shape well again on the Knavesmire in the John Smith’s Cup. He’s a double figure price so I will take the cowardly route and nominate him as an each-way possible. If we can find a bookie that pays up to 16 places, we might just get a result…