26 December 2004

Improving excellence and increasing vulnerability, that’s what racing takes uneasily out of 2004. The likes of Martin Pipe and Frankie Dettori continued to raise even their own standards but racing’s own governance and funding is in potential meltdown over factional issues and disputed legal rights.

Last jumping season Pipe was pushed to the very limit by the ever-climbing stable of Paul Nicholls. But this autumn the little limping dynamo has had the purplest of victory streaks with scarcely a weekend going by without a big winner. These were usually in the green and blue silks of champion trainer David Johnson – Celestial Gold, Therealbandit, Marcel and Well Chief all being part of what must be the longest individual roll of honour in the game.

The difference this season has been the man in the saddle, Timmy Murphy replacing Tony McCoy after the latter took a new challenge with Jonjo O’Neill’s main owner, JP McManus. To start with Murphy’s much quieter style and more introverted attitude had Pipe yearning for his old partner and by Cheltenham’s Open Meeting in November the relationship looked to be heading for the rocks. Murphy’s astounding four-timer that Saturday followed by a repeat performance a fortnight later at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting was an unanswerable assertion of his own class.

McCoy may be chafing while O’Neill’s stable lingers under a virus cloud but he is once again well clear in the race for what would be his 10th consecutive jumping title. With him, Murphy and Ruby Walsh riding regularly over here along with the Grand National winners Barry Geraghty and Paul Carberry in Ireland, there is now more absolute class in the jumping saddle than at any time in memory.

This year’s National was memory lane, Red Rum’s trainer Ginger McCain triumphing at Aintree, with the diminutive Amberleigh House, 27 years since his third and last success with the greatest Grand National horse of them all. The abiding memory of the Cheltenham Festival was Best Mate’s third consecutive Gold Cup – an epic training achievement rendered a touch controversial by Henrietta Knight’s insistence in not running him more than three times each season. Only a fourth win will silence the critics – but not for long.

Unfortunately there were a lot easier targets to moan about than Best Mate’s schedule. Just when racing seemed to have got itself a more realistic funding relationship from the betting industry, the basic tenet was overturned on appeal in Brussels. Martin Broughton who had been expected to play a more conciliatory role as BHB chairman after the dynamic but controversy dogged years of Peter Savill, found himself having to make million-pound cuts to his budget and abandon hopes of a honeymoon period amongst racing’s often warring parts.

Factionalism continued to bedevil us, the latest impasse being the racecourses’ failure to agree how their satellite TV rights should be represented, the major tracks creating the RUK subscription channel rather than taking the Sky shilling of Attheraces.

But the worst stain this year was the ongoing corruption investigation by the City of London Police. This has already seen more than 15 arrests, including that of six-times flat champion Kieren Fallon who compounded the Ballinger Ridge `dropping his hands’ debacle by getting himself caught in a tabloid sting involving a suggestion to his new `friends’ that the ungenerous Ballinger Ridge would continue his long losing sequence.

Fallon kept enough concentration to win his third Derby on North Light but he ran out of steam at the end in face of a Godolphin-fuelled onslaught by the revitalised Dettori. Nine years since his last championship, Dettori was back to show that nothing mattered more to him than the approval of his peers.

Next year Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin stable will be well over 200 strong, making it the most powerful outfit racing has seen. It is our as well as their good fortune that at the top of their heap dances the most famous flying dismounter in history. The signs are that we will need our Frankie moments more than ever.

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