HORSE AND HOUND – 24-2-2011

When is a good idea not a good idea? After two glorious nights at the  wonder of the world that is Meydan Racetrack, it seems both churlish and self condemnatory to say that it is the holding of a “jockeys competition.”

Churlish, because of all the effort and expense involved in bringing the likes of Brazilian ace Tiago Pereira, Japan’s Hiroyuka Uchida and three times Kentucky Derby winning Calvin Borel to add to the more familiar Dettori, Moore and Peslier names in the twelve strong riders list. Self condemnatory, because I was one of the prime organizers of the jockeys competitions of 1994 and 1996 which were the first international racing events to be held in Dubai.

Humans have much longer careers than horses, travel more freely and are usually capable of human speech. Assembling a set of guys who have between them won just about every big race on the planet should give a fascinating opportunity to compare styles and to try and answer that oldest of racing questions – how much difference does the jockey make? It ought to work, but with the brave exception of the huge success Ascot has made of the Shergar Cup, it doesn’t somehow. Why not?

Judging not just by last Thursday and Friday under the floodlights and the desert moon but by countless other such well meaning enterprises around the globe the first thing to say is that it is all too friendly. If you have got the papers and TV channels to trail stories of how Hiroyuki Uchida rode a record breaking 524 winners in 2006 or of how the toothless Calvin Borel has won three of the last four Kentucky Derbies, the impression you are trying to leave is that these are ultra competitive people for whom every race really matters. But then in interview after interview they repeat the refrain that “it is just a bit of fun and the luck of the draw.” That’s hardly taking it seriously.

The same complaint can usually be lodged at the racetrack. By any standards the Meydan organizers had pulled together a stellar cast and yet there was no sign of the jockeys challenge on the front of the racecard and you had to turn over a full eight pages before you got to any sort of explanation inside.

The pity is that the two “Meydan Masters” races on Friday showed the potential. Calvin Borel, so famous for coming late and up the inside at Churchill Downs that he is nicknamed “Bo-Rail”, came stealthily late up the outside to trump the pack in the first and then proceeded to completely overdo the same thing to only finish fourth in the second. Discussing that could fascinate even the uninitiated if examined over a string of consecutive races. Yet those first two “legs” were all you only got on Thursday and with the opening contest on Friday only pulling 8 runners rather than the full 12 the actual competition had to be judged over three races rather than four and there was some fairly embarrassing confusion as the commentators publically conjectured about the score.

The Shergar Cup format held at Ascot each summer is by far the best “Jockeys Challenge” yet devised. It goes the whole hog with every race in the afternoon being part of the show which includes both team and individual competitions. The commentary and the numbers board completely reflect this, and as we did in those first two competitions at Nad Al Sheba, they seed the draw so that in theory each jockey has similar chances and therefore his points should theoretically prove how he performed that afternoon.

But, as also with those two Dubai events 1994 and 1995, even Ascot doesn’t deliver the real tingling tension that a big race and all big sport brings. Someone said as much as we sat late into the night at a beachside villa in March 1995. Looking up in that sharp way of his Sheikh Mohamed said “we need a big race. We will have the richest race in the world.” The first Dubai World Cup was run exactly a year later. Seeing what they led to, perhaps those first jockeys’ challenges were not such a bad idea at all.

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