Health and Safety has become has become a finick’s charter. If you buy a cup of coffee do you really need a sign saying “this beverage may be hot” when being hot is what it is supposed to be? But “Health and Safety” has also helped racecourses put their houses in order with one glaring exception in which there is currently danger to horses’ health and human’s safety. It’s called The Winners Enclosure.
When Denman won the Hennessy it was one of the most joyous as well as the most impressive jumping performances any of us will ever see and, heaven help me, I was riding with Arkle. If Denman were to win the third Gold Cup showdown with Kauto Star in March, the cup would run over in every sense. Are we ready for it? What happened at Newbury both suggests that we aren’t and points the way to the answer. Take the winner out of the winners circle.
For there were two moments at the Hennessy that made me wince. The first was after Denman had pulled up and trotted back to where some of us were waiting at the winning post. As he took a turn his hindquarters momentarily dipped and even amidst all the euphoria you could see the exhaustion bite. He was a very tired horse. He was also a horse who had survived a well chronicled heart problem. He needed to keep moving. What did we do? We walked him into the winner’s enclosure, stood him still and let the adorers mob him.
Paul Nicholls was on to it very quickly. Simply shifting around in ever decreasing circles as the rejoicing band grew ever bigger was not an option. Lucinda Gould was told to take Denman round the whole paddock. It gave him space and the cheer that went up showed that it did more than that, it gave the wider public the chance to see him and it removed the ever present danger of oblivious media persons getting kicked. It’s what should happen at Cheltenham.
Indeed it’s what should happen at all major race meetings. At the moment the procedure in the unsaddling enclosures across the country has not changed that much since the day some thirty years ago when I had to physically pull Vincent O’Brien out of a scrum of hacks to do a TV interview. But there is still a huge media pack who soon swamp the winning connections with little thought to the needs of the owners, the paying public or, most important, the horse at the centre of it all.
In reality only three things need to happen to the horse in the winner’s circle – remove the saddle, douse with water and stand briefly for pictures. Once that is done he is far better away from the scrum. To be fair to Sandown on Saturday, Twist Magic was walking out of the extremely cramped winners circle within two minutes of entering it. But he was walking completely away from public gaze. He had just dazzled the crowd – he should have been circling the paddock to let them praise him.
Of course Sandown must follow best practice in all other major tracks and have its unsaddling in the main paddock where the crowd can see. While it consider this, which it is, it and other courses should take on board two other procedures as big race standard. There should be scales in the enclosure on which the winning jockey weighs in and the TV and public address interview should be combined.
Newbury had scales in the paddock for the Hennessy without the world coming to an end. The Americans have been doing it for more than 25 years. With the weighed in function almost instantly completed, the interviews can go forward with less rush and here, surely, we should take a leaf out of other sports book and ensure that those who have actually paid to come in get as good a deal as those sitting at home watching on TV for nothing.
The O2 Arena has become the cutting edge venue for sport as well concerts and as one of the 15,000 crowd watching Davydenko at the Masters last week I did not have to wait while a scrum of hacks closed in on him putting the demands of radio, TV and the papers in front of mine. The balding Russian was led out in front of us and we heard the interview for ourselves. At Cheltenham it should be the same. Link up Alastair Down’s microphone to the public address and let everybody hear what he is told. There may be the odd technical difficulties but it’s high time they were overcome.
Cheltenham has the best unsaddling enclosure in Britain but those who flock to it have to look down on an unseemly scramble and wait until all other parties have been served before they hear from the winning team. Believe me these interviews are not rocket science. Any half competent broadcaster can ask the questions provided he or she doesn’t start with “where does he run next?” The idea that the winning trainer or jockey has to be asked the same thing by twenty different microphones when it could all happen better, quicker and more informatively first time is simply cobblers.
“Health and Safety” has been one of racing’s as well as the nation’s biggest irritants and it is absurd to think that a racetrack can in anyway be a “Risk Free Zone”. But change this unsaddling enclosure procedure and the crowd’s enjoyment will be greater, the media scrum will be safer and most important, the winning horse will get a better deal.