My weekend highlight was — without any doubt — Bobs Worth (pictured above) defeating his stablemate Simonsig at Aintree in the big hurdle race on Merseyside. Here were two celebrated chasers making their re-apperances — Simonsig having been off the track for what felt like an eternity — and going hell for leather in the Liverpool mud to land a relatively modest pot. This was National Hunt racing at its best, far away from the big Festivals and showcase days.
Bob’s Worth, a former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner was returned the winner at double figure odds, reminding us all of the enduring appeal of punting on familiar names and daring to write them off. Simonsig showed the old swagger that made him so popular before injury ruled him out for over two years. It was a race in the gloom to make the heart swell with promises of more to come.
Then — the very next day — the defending Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Coneygree, reappeared at Sandown to smash his two rivals in what was, to my eye, a faultless display of jumping from the still young chaser. As jumping performances go, it is difficult to think how it could have been bettered, even if the number of rivals he faced was little short of an embarrassment.
Inevitably and understandably, the mind wanders to bigger challenges ahead, to the battles with the Irish (and by Irish, we largely mean Willie Mullins) and to the magic of the festive racing calendar and beyond. Forget bonfires, John Lewis adverts and Hallowe’en: real racing fans know that Christmas is on its way when all the big names reappear and allow us to dream once more that this could be the best season yet…
Throughout the summer, we were subjected to a series of farcical days when Gleneagles — the star miler of the Classic crop — was entered for big races, only to be withdrawn because the ground wasn’t right.
I kind of get it with the ultra-valuable colts, whose owners keep at least one eye throughout the season on the value to their operations when their racehorses take up stallion duties. But in the National Hunt world, where the horses are no less valuable in emotional terms to owners and fans, the prospect of dodging the mid-Winter races on account of testing ground often gets me irritable. We live in the UK, for goodness sake where it tends to always rain!
Such is the value of the Spring festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree that too many of our superstars are wrapped up through the core jumping months, resulting in uncompetitive fields, small fields and lacklustre fare.
Maybe I’d think differently if I were an owner, but as a watcher of the sport, I want to see these horses run — on all types of testing ground — and sometimes lose me money. It’s part of the pact of punting on the National Hunt and I still find it far more alluring that keeping my cash in my pocket as my heroes keep warm in their stables.
Earlier this morning the voting papers arrived for the Horserace Writers & Photographers’ Association Awards lunch at the start of December. Racing, like many sports, makes the most of its autumn and winter lunching season and the HWPA bash at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in early December is well-attended, well-lubricated and goes on for ever.
However, it has also slightly lost sight of its raison d’etre, namely to celebrate the very best in racing journalism and photography. Indeed, many of the leading hacks in the Press Room have started to swerve the event on account of it failing to stay true to its ideals. I’ve submitted my votes but — as regular readers of this column will know — I’m unlikely to have enhanced the chances of any of the guys I’ve plumped for.
Nonetheless, it made me reflect — with anxiety — on where racing journalism is heading. Too many of us have, too frequently, a downer on the sport, whether it be falling terrestrial viewing figures, unpopular presenters, too many bookies, too much data, not enough data, uncritical comment, unfair and over-critical comment, it never seems to end.
And what of the sports editors and the channel controllers? Is it any wonder they look with dismay on the in-fighting in racing’s media and cut the space afforded to the sport we love? If anyone can find the last time the Evening Standard, for example, ran a horse-racing story I’d be straight down to Sotheby’s.
My end of year wish is for racing to put its best foot forward again, to cast off the cloak of self-doubt and borderline self-loathing, and to celebrate the very evident fact that our broadcasters and journalists are second to no other sport in terms of passion, knowledge, insight and, more often that not, good-natured guys.
This weekend, we head to Cheltenham for their wonderful three-day Open meeting. I remember going up from Uni when Shooting Light won the Thomas Pink Gold Cup (as was). I was hooked from that day onwards. This weekend, I’m going to side with Totalize in the Greatwood Hurdle on Sunday. I’ve backed him to oblivion many times, often beating the market but seldom turning a profit. With favourable each-way terms I’ll have one (possibly last) roll of the dice.