Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Devil Wipes His Tail

Change is in the air and, according to an old proverb, the Devil is about to come and wipe his tail over all the blackberries on the racecourse. Of course it won’t just be Cartmel’s blackberries – he’ll be visiting bramble bushes at Plumpton, Fontwell Park, Chepstow, Towcester, Kelso and Perth, in fact bramble bushes all over the World.

According to the book of Revelation, there was a war in heaven and Saint Michael the Archangel led an army of angels who banished Lucifer, whereupon he fell down to earth and landed in a blackberry bush. Alternate versions suggest that, as a result, Satan returns each year on Michaelmas Day and either spits on the fruit, pees on it or wipes his tail across it. Either way, I wouldn’t eat any blackberries after 29th September (or possibly 11th October, which used to be the old date for Michaelmas). They won’t taste very good.
Michaelmas marks the onset of Autumn and this is the time that the Devil also interferes with all Flat racing form books. While there are still some valuable races to be run, the questions being asked are now less about which are the best horses and more about which horses have "gone over the top". Some of the top horses have had a long season, some have enjoyed a break; some won’t act on the softer ground, some have been waiting for a bit of cut beneath their toes. If there is a time to withhold your bets and simply enjoy the spectacle of racing, this is it.
In about a month’s time the Winter jumps season will be getting in the swing. But even over the sticks, there is an uncomfortable churning of the formbook as horses return to the track and face horses which have been in action over the Summer months. This weekend there could be an interesting clash between Champion Court, a prominent runner in the last two King George VI Chases and Drumlang, who has won twice and been placed twice from four runs in August. If forced to name a selection, I’d venture a small wager on Astracad in the same race at Market Rasen – he’s run well in September before and has the assistance of Sam Twiston-Davies.
The freakily fine September weather has enabled us to carry out lots of work on the racing surface and the track will be going to bed in the very best condition possible. We’ve top-dressed large parts of the track with an even layer of soil, seeded worn areas and improved drainage to the beck. The grass looks super and we’re ready for a cold Winter.
The weather has already started to turn and it wouldn’t be a surprise if there was a storm with heavy winds in the next few weeks. It'll turn the leaves and blow fruit from the trees. So, not only is it time to stop picking the blackberries, it is time to gather in all the sloe berries that you can lay your hands on. Steep them in sugar and gin between now and Christmas to make a bottle or two of sloe gin - the perfect snifter for racing in the New Year.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The "Nice" Bucket Challenge

Good things come in ice-buckets: Louis Roederer Champagne, a nice Chablis or even a bottle of Pineau De Re (in honour of this year’s Grand National winner). So when the staff at Kelso Racecourse invited me to take part in the "Ice Bucket Challenge" I was delighted. Kelso is famed for its friendly hospitality - so (fool that I am) expectations were high. 

Now, you’d probably have to have been abroad for several months not to have seen pictures in the media of people getting very wet – but if (like me) you haven’t been taking much notice, you may not know what it is all about. The Ice Bucket Challenge is a cascading awareness campaign where charitable volunteers are encouraged, in escalating numbers, to donate money to the Motor Neurone Disease Association in return for getting soaked. And it works – it is estimated that approximately one in six people have undertaken the challenge and more than 2.5 million videos relating to the challenge have been posted on Facebook.
Motor Neurone Disease affects about 5,000 people in the UK, causing the degeneration of nerves in the brain and spinal cord. This means that messages from the brain don’t reach the muscles, restricting voluntary movement and eventually causing the wastage of muscles, extreme weakness and sometimes full paralysis. Not everyone suffers from the same set of symptoms and onset of the disease can take varying amounts of time. To find out more, go to .

In August the Motor Neurone Disease Association received a valuable boost to their fund-raising efforts when the Ice Bucket Challenge stimulated donations worth £2.7 million - roughly thirteen and half times their usual monthly receipts. Other charities have benefited too, including Macmillan Cancer Support who (according to a BBC report) generated Ice Bucket donations of £3 million and Water Aid, who generated £47,000 in just one day.

You might have gathered by now: I know a lot more about the Ice Bucket Challenge than I did a few weeks ago. It didn’t involve drinking any wine at all, although if you visit the Cartmel Racecourse Facebook page, you’ll notice that the first schlop of ice-cold water was delivered from a very nice Louis Roederer ice bucket. For this reason alone, the first person that I have challenged to take part is our contact at the Louis Roederer Champagne House, Guy Cliffe. The next two people are both involved in the production of our favourite local newspaper: Frank Stretton and Paul Turner of The North West Evening Mail.

This week’s selection is Minalisa, who should be backed each-way, at a price of 25/1 or more, for the William Hill Ayr Gold Cup this Saturday.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

All Power to the Scottish Racing Authority

I can’t help it, I am totally enthralled by the coverage of Scotland’s independence referendum. It is exciting, fascinating and just a little bit bonkers – not unlike race-meetings at Cartmel but with more clowns and fewer picnics.
From a purely personal point of view, I am very supportive of Scottish independence. Many people, including many friends, relations and colleagues will disagree with me. They may even question whether I live in the real world. But of course I don’t… I live in the racing world, where the most important topic at breakfast is whether Compton Park (this week’s selection) has eaten up his oats ahead of the Portland Handicap at Doncaster on Saturday.
Scotland is a land where betting shops have traditionally prospered. The Scots account for around 8.4% of the UK population and are believed to account for at least as much of the UK’s annual betting turnover. The Levy generated by Scottish punters is paid to the Horserace Betting Levy Board in London where, together with monies generated by English and Welsh punters, it is distributed across the racing industry in the form of prize money grants and payments for the industry’s integrity services.
Scottish racecourses receive approximately 6.2% of the annual HBLB spend – which means that more than a quarter of the money generated by Scottish punters is used to fund racing in England and Wales. Now the obvious thing to point out (and many of my colleagues in the industry will be quick to do so), is that much of the money wagered by Scots is bet on races that are staged in England – not Scotland. Some people will argue that it is only fair that these courses should receive a proportionate share of the Levy revenue.
However, in a world where financial transactions are whispered across the ether from one continent to another, we have reached a new conclusion – that betting transactions should be taxed at the point of consumption. This means that bets accepted, from UK customers, by bookmakers in Gibraltar will be taxed in the UK. If Scotland achieves independence, it is not unreasonable for bets accepted from Scottish customers to be taxed and levied in Scotland.
The additional revenue could be used by the Scottish racing industry to stage more fixtures and more prestigious races, which in turn would stimulate more betting turnover and – even more importantly – a larger population of horses trained in Scotland and the North of England. Ultimately, a rebalancing of finances could be beneficial to racing on both sides of the border.
While such arguments are simple to make in a 500 word blog, there would of course be some complex issues to resolve. Scottish race-days form part of a matrix of fixtures across Britain which are currently regulated by a governing body. Even if the Scottish racing industry were to break free of these ties, the commercial realities of our media rights contracts bind the five Scottish racecourses to many of their English counterparts.
Scottish independence would not necessarily be good for racing at Cartmel, but it wouldn’t necessarily be bad either. A "no" vote would probably provide more security to Scottish racecourses and a whole lot less hassle. However, in my humble opinion, a "yes" vote would grant the Scottish racing industry a whole world of opportunity.

As our Prime Minister keeps saying "It’s for the Scot’s to decide". I don’t have a vote, but I still believe that this is the most exciting race of the year.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Gone to the Dogs?

No sooner does the 2014 racing season finish at Cartmel, than we find ourselves deep in the midst of planning for 2015. Sadly we can’t just schedule fixtures when we feel like it; we have to work with the rest of the racing industry to identify appropriate slots in a process which is administered by the British Horseracing Authority.

The process is usually subject to a large degree of confidentiality, so it is interesting that this year’s negotiations have already generated several furlongs of media coverage. First Warwick Racecourse announced their abandonment of Flat racing, then Towcester Racecourse released the news that they were going to stage less horseracing and more dog-racing – prompting the headline that racing has "Gone To The Dogs".

Now, I love greyhounds and dog racing can be a lot of fun, but the term dog-racing is often used in a derogatory sense to describe horseracing on all-weather surfaces. So it is ironic, as far as that headline is concerned, that the biggest fixture related story is the BHA’s decision to effectively turn down an application from Newcastle Racecourse to stage all-weather racing next year.

Most horses that race on all-weather tracks also race on turf tracks - the spectacle is much the same. But, for a variety of reasons, all-weather racing just isn’t as popular. The fixtures attract much smaller crowds and lack atmosphere. If you have an aversion to crowds and have been missing the horses, an afternoon at Lingfield Park or Southwell is the trip for you. At Wolverhampton and Kempton, they stage evening racing under floodlights – and it was this factor that accounted for Newcastle’s recent reverse with the BHA.

The plans for the Newcastle development included floodlights on just one mile of the track. Crucially, rule 26.1 of the Rules of Racing requires that each fixture must include at least two races with an aggregate distance of at least 2½ miles – so the racecourse would have been unable to comply. The BHA considered granting an exemption to the rule but decided against – stimulating an outburst from the racecourse’s owners who felt frustrated by the timing of the decision.

The fact is that most racing professionals are in favour of developing an all-weather track in the North. The main concerns revolve, not around the distance of the races, but the location of the track, it’s suitability and the facilities that will be lost as a result. The existing turf track at Newcastle is very highly regarded and modern trainers are now appropriately fussy about such things. It is more than 25 years since Jean Campbell, successful with Certain Light in the Cheltenham Foxhunters Steeplechase, told reporters that she had the most fantastic all-weather gallop – a muddy field at the back of her dairy farm in Kent, where Certain Light went out whatever the weather.

While Newcastle’s owners have pledged to press ahead with their plans for 2016, they are likely to face a rival (favoured by some) in the shape of a proposed development at Catterick. It seems likely that one or both will provide additional action for owners and trainers in the North within the next two years. This will help to stimulate more ownership in the North and more equestrian enterprises – so despite being somewhat removed from our own product, the all-weather development could well generate benefits for Cartmel in the future. In the meantime, we continue to negotiate for improvements to our own fixture list and anticipate publication by the BHA in mid-October. 

This week’s selection: Hawkeyethenoo, who has run well on the all-weather at Lingfield, but goes this Saturday to compete on turf at Ascot.