Racing can banish Cheltenham memories and refresh its image

Sunday 31 May 2020

Cheltenham seems a distant, heedless memory, but racing is still getting the blame. Just like those two schoolboys walking the beach at Bognor Regis in August 1914 and the first says, “England’s declared” to which the other quips, “what was the score?”

It’s still a good story no matter that there had not been a Test series since the previous winter’s successful England tour of South Africa. So too is the idea that racing flouted regulations by not cancelling the Cheltenham Festival when doing so would have been against both medical and government advice. 

Hindsight can be an ugly thing, but racing’s resumption next week gives the game a unique chance to refresh its image as it did after its last two-and-a-half month hiatus. By neat coincidence, that time, way back in 1963, had an imminent Cheltenham Festival as its relaunch.

This was The Big Freeze that saw everything in England (Scotland managed a single day at Ayr on January 5th) frozen and snowed off from Fontwell on December 22nd 1962 to Newbury on March 8th just four days before a Cheltenham which would see a first appearance of the legend that was Arkle. It was a break of 76 days rather than the 74 gap that will have spanned Wetherby’s ‘closed doors’ fixture on March 17th to Newcastle’s hyper regulated re-start tomorrow. 

The problems back then were physically much tougher but lacked the frustration  and the fear of what’s ahead that besiege us this time. Despite the pressures of lockdown and the horrors of events in hospitals and care homes, fine weather and furlough schemes have eased the pain for many of us. Not so in ’63 when snowdrifts were 20-foot deep, the average temperature in January and February was -7c, and family trips to Durham were definitely not an option. 

This is particularly true for racing where training has been able to go on unhindered and stable routines have a natural element of social distancing not needing much adjustment to comply with regulations. When the 2,000 Guineas, the first colt’s classic, is run on Saturday, five weeks after its normal date, Iack of fitness should not be an issue. Particularly not for Aidan O’Brien who may send a five strong team headed by Arizona to tackle hot favourite Pinatubo in a race he has won four times in the past five years without a previous run that season.

What a contrast to 1963 when the only way of getting horses exercised was laying out a circle of soiled straw and trying to trot round without something giving a huge, bucking leap into the frozen snow where hooves hitting the base was like riding on an ice rink. Early mornings up from Oxford to Derek Ancil’s yard at Middleton Stoney are forever scarred in my memory. Amazingly one of Derek’s horses won that Saturday and again at Cheltenham, but plenty of others didn’t and only 6 of the 21 runners in the Novice Chase finished on that first day at Newbury. 

But at least the crowds came flocking back; the Queen Mother was on the Newbury train from Paddington, and racing and Britain pressed ahead albeit with assorted embarrassments like the Profumo Scandal and The Great Train Robbery to batter our international esteem just as other events do today.

For racing the ‘closed doors’ necessity will be every bit as damaging as to other sports, and with a likely massive drop in sponsorship money added to the lost attendance revenue, quite a number of our 59 racecourses may become unviable just as the oncoming recession will make an unhappy cull of our 600 trainers. 

But as the only big televised game in town we are mad to be anything but positive. There were 369 entries for Newcastle tomorrow and the next weeks offer the most intensive spell of top racing ever seen anywhere with the 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas next weekend, a full Royal Ascot 10 days later and the Derby and Oaks at the start of July. All at present run under the strictest of protocols but that, as already practiced in France, Hong Kong and Australia, is not extra difficult in an already highly regulated sport where failure to complete official checks has long seen instant disqualification.

To judge by the Zoom operated TV ad we did for ITV last week with Ed Chamberlin in his home office and Francesca Cumani battling with a pony and a four year old son in a paddock somewhere, it will certainly present some challenges for us broadcasters. But problems are welcome and, except for the odd regrettable hiccup, racing has put on an admirable willingness to support itself and take this opportunity of presenting its best face to the public.

We may even be spared the likes of the pithiest trainer’s retort which came in the Cheltenham unsaddling enclosure after Winning Fair had won the 1963 Champion Hurdle. It came from George Spencer, late lamented father of current jockey Jamie Spencer. “Is it true Mr Spencer, that your horse has only one eye?”asked a somewhat pompous press man. “Sure,” replied George on the volley, “if he had two eyes he would have won the effing Derby.”

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