22 December 2002

Superstars versus scandal and disgrace; that was been racing in 2002. Tony McCoy, Rock of Gibraltar and Sir Alex Ferguson spawned the sort of headlines any sport would die for. But two damaging BBC documentaries, a ludicrously misjudged row with newspapers over racecards and internal feuding made the future look uncertain.

However much we may all praise the wonderful Paula Radcliffe as BBC Sports Personality of the Year, it is Tony McCoy who is the true sporting phenomenom of our times. His statistics, achieved on starvation rations in a highly dangerous game, are awesome: 289 winners from 1,008 jump racing rides last season, 196 from 586 already this time. That McCoy can also be good company makes him a racing treasure of absolutely freakish value.

So, too, has been Ferguson’s dream run with his Aidan O’Brien-trained colt Rock of Gibraltar, who, in October, collected a record-breaking seventh consecutive success at Group One level. United may have had the odd blip last season but O’Brien continued to dominate and, even when Rock of Gibraltar ran out of room at the Breeders’ Cup in Chicago, Derby winner High Chaparral beat America’s best a couple of races later to square the account.

But all this interest and achievement, very much including Irish trainer Dermot Weld’s brilliant feat of winning the Melbourne Cup for the second time, was tainted by the two BBC documentaries which brought racing’s seamier side into very sharp relief. No matter that the first proved no more than that some trainers are prepared to at least talk about “fiddling” their horses’ form, and that the second was largely historical about the notorious activities of punter-cocaine smuggler Brian Wright and his gang, racing had to see just how unhappy a picture it could portray.

Worst of all was the sense of paralysed ineptitude which the authorities – in this case the Jockey Club – gave out under questioning and relations with the media were further compromised by the British Horseracing Board’s stupid row with national sports editors over the printing of racecards in their newspapers. One can only hope that their eventual humiliating climbdown will signal a new sense of rationalty in their dealings not just with the media but with the different factions within racing itself.

The need is likely to be highlighted as a reality check is taken on the promising new Attheraces channel, whose original business plan remains on the very high side of optimistic and is likely to need readjusting to avoid what the collapse of ITV Digital did to the Nationwide League.

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