18+ | Commercial Content | T&Cs apply | Wagering and T&Cs apply | Play Responsibly | Advertising Disclosure
Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

The Mushroom Approach

More Of ThatMore Of That
© Photo Healy Racing

Bellyaching about Cheltenham getting diluted by too many days and too many races is a futile exercise on the back of continuing commercial success which nevertheless can’t disguise, in purely racing terms, some negative impacts. The festival is billed as National Hunt’s championships where the various strands of form through the season come together. But does that necessarily hold true anymore?

This is a debate that has nothing to do with the increasing number of handicaps, or those who crib about the Cross-Country, or why a conditional jockeys' hurdle should be part of the festival at all, or even if Day 3 puts a brake on the festival’s flow.

However the idea that More Of That’s connections could yet switch their former World Hurdle winner to the JLT rather than take up the option of what would be a mouth-watering clash with No More Heroes in the RSA surely says something about the range of options at Cheltenham these days.

It certainly puts a potentially mouth-watering clash between the two best staying chasers on either side of the Irish Sea in doubt, a clash that would be a festival highlight, and possibly removing a true championship clash from the Cheltenham menu.

You can see why the option is attractive to More Of That’s connections. If there’s a potentially easier Grade 1 festival option open to the horse they would be foolish not to at least consider it.

And in the overall sense the logic of staging a race at an intermediate trip between the two-mile Arkle and the three-mile RSA is tough to argue with, especially when it helps programme schedulers eager to expand the meeting. It’s the same logic behind there being three Grade 1 novice hurdles, and the introduction of the Ryanair Chase.

But the range of options across the festival programme does facilitate more of a cherry-picking policy that simply didn’t exist before, which is often good news for those involved, but which in this case may wind up robbing the festival of a head-to-head that could decide the identity of the season’s top novice, the very sort of contest the festival is famed for.

Some of the likely stars at the upcoming festival strutted their stuff after racing at Leopardstown on Sunday in front of an admiring paying public, or at least those members of the paying public who had some idea of what was going on, which it is pretty safe to presume were in a minority.

This post-racing session has been going for so long it’s hard to imagine it can still come across as so ramshackle. Maybe the public as a whole don’t really care about this stuff but some certainly do and there were more than a few complaints that there was no way of identifying which horse was which. There wasn’t even a commentary on-course.

At Kempton the day before, one Gold Cup hope, Cue Card, had a workout which attracted plenty of attention. Leopardstown had a trio of Gold Cup horses, Vautour, Don Poli and Don Cossack, schooling over fences and they might as well not have been there at all for some members of the paying public knew about it.

One customer asked if this is part of the deal, that top horses are allowed gallop in public just so long as the public aren’t let in on it, the whole mushroom approach of keeping people in the dark and feeding them plenty of s—t. Except in this case they didn’t even get fed.

That same public were also kept hanging for a long time after Alisier D’Irlande’s novice chase success which subsequently saw the runner up, one of two Paul Nolan trained runners in the race, being disqualified for weighing in light after Nolan mixed up the lead cloths on his horses.

The announcement was that an enquiry was taking place into an error in the weighing in procedure. And that was that. Would it have been so against protocol to clarify which horse was involved, and that it wasn’t the winner? To those depending on the PA, it was a full quarter of an hour before they knew what was happening.

Speaking of protocols, subterranean rumblings over what protocols should be put in place for Out Of Competition Testing on stud farms are likely to continue for some time to come, accompanied by all sorts of posturing about tackling the doping scourge, with most everyone involved it seems suspecting the eventual outcome will be not very much at all.

It all looks to come down to jurisdiction and sanction. Breeder politics can be murkier than the Liffey, and as difficult to swallow, but among all the disparate elements there seems a general reluctance to get pulled under the rules of racing which makes hopes for a system which might eventually allow the Turf Club carry out random testing seem slim.

Not that some breeders won’t allow Turf Club officials on to their premises: but since breeders as a species are a politically disparate and amorphous blob, a sizable number of which aren’t formally represented, it seems an enormous task to put in place protocols that can be applied to all. And if some don’t want to play ball, what kind of mechanism can be put in place to either make them, penalise them, or both.

That looks a political minefield, not to mention a legal one, with real intentions often disguised behind carefully maintained public expressions of sincerity, and it’s hard not to suspect the ultimate outcome will be to come back to Square 1, or at best Turf Club officials accompanying Department of Agriculture personnel in any testing process, which is basically Square 1 and a bit.

And finally Cheltenham always provokes a vast range of dumb bets but surely none dumber than the 25-1 announced to the world about every single one of Ruby Walsh’s festival mounts making the first three. I’d mention the firm but from their point of view that would be job done. Anyone taking up the offer will only confirm that one thing never diluted at the festival is punter gullibility.