Royal Ascot was certainly a week of two halves weather-wise with the first three days run on very quick ground and the last two days on very soft. Personally, I preferred the slower surface which at least took away the ridiculous draw bias in the races run on the straight course over the first three days. Those drawn in the middle may as well have stayed at home which is not fair on horses, connections or punters.
Those who took on Poetic Flare in Tuesday’s St James’s Palace stakes must also wish they’d stayed at home. Jim Bolger’s colt routed the opposition with a stellar performance. A performance which is the product of over 300 years of the selective breeding of thoroughbreds. The breeding element of horse racing is at its core and is integral in making horse racing such an enduring and fascinating sport.
Bolger must be extremely proud of what he has achieved as an “outsider” in this great sport. From humble beginnings the 79-year-old is one of the most astute and talented trainer/breeders that has ever graced the game. All the more surprising then, that he would decide at such a late juncture in life to toss grenades at the establishment with his claims of systematic doping at the upper echelons of the training ranks and an inadequate response from the policing authorities. I wonder about Bolger’s motivation and timing. Why wait until now? Is this simply a parting gift born out of his love for the sport? Perhaps so, but it’s strange that rather than engage with the authorities at the outset he instead went the media route. It’s also strange that he would wait some 20 years before going public and then only with what appears a half-baked theory seemingly based on hearsay. Bolger is nobody's fool which makes the whole episode all the more intriguing.
I have no doubt there are cheaters and dopers active within racing, I just don’t buy it that they are at the top of the sport. If Bolger’s assertion is true that other top stables are doping their horses, I’d reckon a few trainers had some sharp words with their suppliers when they got home from Ascot. Why bother taking the risk of doping your horses if “clean” horses can win Group 1’s by half the length of the Champs-Elysees?
The naming of the races at Royal Ascot must be one of the stranger elements of the pageantry that surrounds this historic event. In a time when homelessness is such an emotive issue both here and in the UK it’s odd that the Queen still allows all her Palaces and Castles to be listed in race titles. That said, it’s probably more palatable than the wall-to-wall bookie sponsorship at other events.
Many within racing place much emphasis on the “Hertitage” elements of the sport, wanting everything to stay the same regardless of how times change.
The latest mootings of Cheltenham being extended to a fifth day from 2023 are as incendiary to many as Bolger’s grenades. This threatens the status quo and I doubt there are many racing fans that will see this as a positive step yet from a commercial perspective it makes perfect sense.
The main risk of a fifth day at Cheltenham is the further diluting of the Championship races but this can be easily avoided by introducing more handicaps.
Take Galway as an example where there are realistically only two races of note throughout the seven days, incidentally both handicaps, but the rest of the week is padded out with a series of irrelevant races, often with identical race conditions. This formula works well as the majority of people that go to that festival couldn’t care what horses are running, the only thing that matters is that they are at the Galway Races. All ends of the industry profit from the seven days at Galway and a fifth day at Cheltenham will be no different.
Most within the industry will, at least secretly, relish the prospect of a fifth day at Cheltenham. More prizemoney, more opportunities to have a Cheltenham runner or winner, more betting turnover, more mainstream exposure. It’s a win-win scenario that any professional sport would be foolish not to exploit.
A final nod to Bolger’s one-time protégé Aidan O’Brien who completed the full set of European Classics with the victory of Joan Of Arc in Sunday’s French Oaks at Chantilly.
One of the most remarkable aspects to O’Brien’s career is its longevity. I suppose success helps, but for someone who has been in such a pressurised job for so long he wears it very well. There was a time when I thought he might pass the baton on but at this stage he looks like a man who will continue rewriting the record books for many years to come.