Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

How's About The Start?

Mon 10th Apr 2017, 08:45

Derek Fox and Lucinda Russell
©Healy Racing Photos
Perhaps the most admirable element to One For Arthur's Grand National success was the faith shown in jockey Derek Fox by the horse's connections. This was a prime Aintree candidate. Presumably plenty agents for more high-profile riders were offering their services, especially with injury doubts about Fox on the run-up to the race. With so much on the line it would have been easy to look elsewhere. But the 24 year old Sligo man got an opportunity and took it in style.

Rare is the winning ride that doesn't look good but for someone whose career up to now barely qualified him for a 'journeyman' tag there was notable assurance to the plot Fox traced through the most hectic race of all. Given the chance to shine he rose to the occasion. And it makes one think about how important that one opportunity can be and how much talent over the years has not got that vital break.

The pat answer is the cream always rises to the top. And it mostly does. But it is remarkable in such a self-consciously tough sport how big a role fashion plays in professional fortunes. And if the tiny elite establishes its own pecking order then perhaps it's the rank just below that which feels fashion's fluctuations most.

If One For Arthur had fallen at the first Fox would have returned this week to a largely anonymous role scrapping for a living and few would suspect him of possessing the sure touch that enabled One For Arthur to achieve history. Instead he now has a profile which will enable him to kick his career on, and he has it thanks to himself but also the faith shown by Russell and her partner, Peter Scudamore.

As one of the most celebrated riders in National Hunt history, it's interesting that Scudamore showed such faith in the young Irishman who like so many had to leave home in order to try and get that vital 'start.'

Scudamore profitably rode the fashion wave for years. When it came down to his biggest day in a training role however he was prepared to trust his own instincts. That they were vindicated is great for all concerned and a reminder of just how important 'the start' remains. And also how many have the capability but not the opportunity.

The actual National start again provoked unwanted attention with two false attempts before the field was eventually let go. This wasn't the starter's fault, just the near-inevitable outcome of having 40 horses primed for their lives and sending officials out to try and ensure a fair and level start armed with just a tape, some flags and the power of their voice.

Not surprisingly the starter has referred 31 of the riders to the BHA. Considering all horses and riders returned unscathed from the race and the event went off incident-free - apart from Conor McGregor looking for even more attention - talking about the start is small-beer. But for the sport's shop-window event it looked very amateurish.

Even though it's been shot down before the solution is obvious. Pay for some big starting stalls and let them off. If they can start the top jump races in Japan and Australia from stalls then why not the biggest jump race of all, eliminating in one stroke this foostering about at the start.

Another little National point is how anti-climactic the moments after One For Arthur passed the post seemed. The authorities were understandably keen to be seen to bend over backwards in terms of animal welfare by ostentatiously having buckets of water immediately thrown over the winner, leaving Fox to trudge his way back to weigh in.

Maybe it's years of conditioning about the horse returning to acclaim in the winner's circle but it seemed to rob the moment of something.

The debate about what might be robbed from the moment at this year's Irish Derby, and the second-leg of 'Champions Weekend,' by having a reduced crowd watching from what will effectively be a building site will no doubt continue up until the start of July at least.

But the decision to keep racing at the Curragh during construction has inevitably to be viewed in the context of what is the new financial and political reality at HQ.

The Turf Club has a one-third voting share on the new board through bringing the actual track to the table. But the increased influence of private investors is obvious when you consider Horse Racing Ireland's chief executive Brian Kavanagh predicts up to €40 million for the project will eventually come from benefactors.

Reaching that figure means budgeting for the redevelopment will be on the basis of €70 million rather than €65 million - the state, through HRI contributes €30 million - and it will leave the Curragh Ltd starting off in 2019 debt free.

But whatever about voting share, money talks and real money only has to whisper. And whoever's got the most usually wins. So if putting a halt to racing completely during construction might make logistical sense, such logic doesn't count for much without the financial clout to back it up. And that appears to be the Curragh's investment reality now.

Recent reports that a leading member of a criminal gang could part-own a high-profile but unnamed Grade 1 winning horse have meant that no one but everyone now privately knows the identification of this animal. The law being the law though it's not possible to name names as the matter is being investigated by the Criminal Assets Bureau.

Whatever the intricacies of the detail it does show how racing is vulnerable to the process of cash being turned into assets. There's nothing new about it. In fact it could be argued racing is even more vulnerable given its cash-in-hand culture. And quite often, as seems the case in this matter, those at the racing coalface can be completely unaware of who or what they might be dealing with.

From a regulatory perspective trying to establish who may or may not be a fit and proper person is a legal minefield. It always has been. But if the words are to count as more than window dressing then the appropriate processes have to be taken and be seen to be taken.

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