Tag Archives: Opinion

First Impressions: The New Curragh

The new Curragh opened its doors for the general public for the first time today. A new era for Irish (flat) racing. A monstrous project in the making for the last four years, associated with a price tag of around €80 million – it’s better be a success!

Whether it’s going to be a long-term success with crowds embracing the new facilities beyond this opening day remains to be seen. Judged by the attendance today the word ‘promising’ may be on the lips of many, though.

I’ve been waiting for this moment for a good few years: finally back at the Curragh! Driving down the N7, get off at exit 12 and there it is, right in front of your eyes, the imposing new grand stand!

Upon arrival my first thought was: WOW! This is spectacular! Stunningly beautiful from an architectural point of view. I didn’t expect it to be that good. No way! After all, this is Ireland where these type of projects rarely go to plan. This project had its own little issues, but the outcome is magnificent – and that is what matters most.

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What’s good? Great views from the parade ring. Plenty of space. Only short walks between parade ring, betting and the grand stand. First class elevated viewing for the regular racegoer from the stand itself. Everything is shiny, new and gives the impression of classiness.

Opportunity for improvement? Getting your hands on a coffee is a tricky adventure. Long ques for food and drink wherever you go. Maybe I missed them, but there were no mobile coffee vans like they used to exist at the old Curragh.

Food prices are not for the fainthearted. But that’s nothing new. Regular ticket prices are €20. A season ticket is €265 – that’s a whopping €90 more than when I bought one the last time in 2015, the year before construction began. This isn’t a cheap place.

I didn’t go racing at the Curragh during the construction years. I was – quite frankly – pissed off. Holding a season ticket for a number of years, I would have expected some concessions to existing members while racing continued at what was effectively a building site – a decision in itself I didn’t like. It showed a lack of regard for the general racegoer.

Whether the new Curragh will be able to attract on regular basis the sort of crowd that came through the turnstiles today for the more low profile days is a question the future will tell. I’m not so sure, unfortunately.

I hope it does, I really do. This new Curragh deserves it. It’s an amazing place to watch horse racing. It’s the perfect stadium for our equine heroes. Having been to many racecourses around the world I can honestly say the Curragh is right up there with the best.

Now they have to work on service for the general public, think about pricing and any further enhancements that could be made to the raceday experience in order to lure punters to the track more often.

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A Weekend To Remember

What a roller-coaster week. Culminating in an emotional and dramatic weekend that included a 16/1 winning selection for the 1000 Guineas as well as a winner in the Kentucky Derby that was no winner half an hour later and a superstar on the other side of the globe far too few people have heard of yet!

Throw in a couple of unlucky 2nd places and a 2000 Guineas result that left me wonder “what if” and you’ve certainly got a few days to remember!

2000 Guineas: What Draw Bias?!

Horses loading for the first Classic of the 2019 flat season, a last few words from Johnny Murtagh on ITV: he’s now leaning toward Magna Grecia based on his observation of the existence of a draw bias in favour of the stands-side.

A few minutes later Twitter was running hot as Magna Grecia passed the line in front of everyone else, indeed. The colt trained by Aiden O’Brien – of course – won the battle of his small group on the stand-side, far away from the rest of the field, comfortably. And because his side was always ahead throughout the race he won the 2000 Guineas rather comfortably in the end.

My selection Skardu ran a massive race and finished 3rd, winning the race in his much larger group. I guess, ideally we wouldn’t have this discussion now and instead we’d have seen a “fair” race. But this is racing. Happened in the past. Will happen again.

Whether there was a draw bias I am not so sure. Most likely there was a pace bias, though. And this had the most profound impact on the outcome of the race. This is certainly something that occurs any given day. If you’re drawn close to the pace and you follow it you always have a better chance of winning than not.

Smarter people will be able to explain all the exact reasons behind it in greater detail than I can or want right now. But that is a racing fact.

On balance I believe – at least over 1 mile – there is little between Magna Grecia and Skardu, and possibly Madhmoon. Will we see a re-match at the Curragh in a few weeks time? Magna Grecia is bound for the first Irish Classic. Wouldn’t it be nice to see these three meet there again? I’d love to see that!

Derby Delight Turns Sour

I live for these big races. The anticipation building over the whole day leading up to the moment when the gates crash open – pure excitement!

Normally I’m neither too high nor too low watching bred and butter racing, regardless of betting, the winning or the losing. Big races get my blood flowing, though.

Getting up at 3am in the morning for the Melbourne Cup? No bother. I can’t sleep anyway because of all the butterflies in my stomach!

The Kentucky Derby is one of my favourite races of the entire year. The occasion, build-up and atmosphere transported thanks to the outstanding NBC coverage is simply stunning.

No different this Saturday night. I was cheering home my selection Maximum Security with passion – surely the neighbours enjoyed it too – pumping the first in the air as the colt crossed the line ahead of everyone else. And who wouldn’t? A 9/1 winner in the Kentucky Derby is something to shout about!

Then the dreaded words: “objection lodged…. hold on to your tickets”. What follows are replay after replay dissecting ever aspect of the final three furlongs of the 145 Kentucky Derby. It was obvious Maximum Security was the best horse in the race. The runner-up Country House had no right to be upset with the result. He wasn’t impeded at all!

But it was also obvious Maximum Security impeded other horses when shifting around when turning home. It could resulted in a pretty bad situation on a different day.

Taking that into consideration I can understand the disqualification. And given the strict US rules it probably was the right call in the end.

On the other hand, whether it is truly a fair call to take the race away from the horse that was quite clearly the best one in the race, because of shifting around in an incredibly tight situation, racing on the limit at the end of a tough contest, doing so on a sloppy surface….

After all these are animals, not robots who run straight on rails as if they’d be pre-programmed machines.

It all happens so fast, there are 150.000 people screaming, horses and riders fighting for space, whips flying around…. it’s racing, not chess. These things happen in the sport and the question that needs to be raised in these type of situations is: did the winner got an unfair advantage and did the runner-up lost because of this situation?

The answer is unequivocal NO in this instance.

Ultimately I feel Maximum Security should have kept the race. What a fairytale it would have been. A horse thought to be so bad he started his career in a $16k claimer, going to win the Kentucky Derby…..

The Best Ever? 

South Africa as produced a lot of fantastic race horses over the years. The likes of Variety Club or Igugu come to my mind, in particular. But there is a new kid on the block and he could be the best there ever was in South Africa – some already suggest!

Well, one thing is for sure: Hawwaam is an incredibly exciting colt, with a turn of foot you rarely see produced in such stunning manner. How he races away from his rivals in the closing stages, like it’s the easiest thing in the world, is nothing short of breathtaking.

I took note for the first time – and was immensely impressed –  when Hawwaam stepped into Grade 1 company for the first time in the SA Classic earlier this year as he arguably exploded in the final furlong putting a handful of lengths between himself and the rest in a matter of strides.

He followed up on Saturday in the Grade 1 Champions Challenge when stepping up to the 10 furlongs distance and he couldn’t have been more impressive. How often do you see a horse in a top-level contest travelling hard on the bridle approaching the final furlong and then shooting clear under hands and heels? This horse is special:

On to the Durban July now? He surly will go off a warm favourite. And only luck or the lack of can stop him there I reckon.

How great would it be to see this superstar travel the world?! And what a shame that it remains so difficult for South African horses to travel. In turn it means far too few people get to know these classy horses that race on the other side of the globe.

Wayne Lordan Defies the Stats

He was 1 for 42 rides in the UK for Aiden O’Brien and his mounts went off a 25/1 average SP – Wayne Lordan couldn’t have been an unlikelier hero in the 1000 Guineas today – at least judged by the numbers.

Riding the least fancied of the Ballydoyle string once more, Hermosa was a largely ignored runner coming into the race. You could back her at 20/1+ this morning.

I missed those massive prices, but still got 16s with only a few hours to go to the race when making her my sole selection for the 1000 Guineas.

All credit to Wayne Lordan, though. What superb ride: incredibly brave, at the same time keeping it simple, bouncing the filly out of the stalls sending her straight to the lead, knowing Hermosa would likely stay all day and night long.

And she did! She was gutsy, stuck to her guns when challenged and won well in the end. A supremely well bred filly, adds another big race success to her superstar family, given she is a full-sister to Group 1 winners Hydrangea and The United States.

It brings a hectic week to an end. I had 30 bets. Way too many. I go carried away on Monday in particular but was bailed out by New Show at Windsor, thankfully. 4 winners & 120pts profit this week – the highlight obviously Hermosa.

A week of what would have been. 10 placed horses, multiple of those beaten in tight finishes on the line. A winner in the Kentucky Derby that was taken away half an hour later.

Well…. onwards and upwards. 

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Winx The Great – But Not The Greatest

 

“Beep, Beep, Beep……” The alarm rings at half past five in the morning – on a Saturday. Autsch!

35 minutes to go until the gates crash open on the other side of the globe: Winx, the Australian wonder mare, is about to bring the house down at Sydney’s Randwick racecourse.

It’s her final final race – number 43, in a career that’s spanning over six years. Quite an astonishing longevity for a horse competing at the highest level of the sport. Even more astonishing: Winx hasn’t lost in 32 consecutive starts.

She’s not letting this one slip – consecutive victory #33. From the widest draw she settles in sixth position, travelling beautifully. The pace isn’t particularly hot, but jockey Hugh Bowman has nothing to fear: three furlongs out he allows Winx to stride on, she’s got to turn four wide, no bother. Once entering the home straight, the star mare hits top gear and sprints home in emphatic fashion.

Impressive: a 25th Group 1 success – no horse won more. Ever. Same goes for the astronomical amount of price money she’s amassed throughout her stellar career.

It was worth getting up early for this wonderful moment of racing history. Winx, now retired, will live on in our memories as one of the great champions of our sport. What she has done, again and again, over such a long period of time – given we know how fragile these creatures are – is simply astonishing.

The Debate: “The Greatest We’ve Ever Seen” ?

Racing fans across the globe arguing for some time about the true merit of her victories. Whether Winx is one of the best – if not even the best ever – or whether she’s merely avoided real competition hence she can’t be “a great”…. the debate is pretty black and white in many quarters.

True, Winx took on the same horses on many occasions. She’s beaten poor Hartnell eight times and Happy Clapper eleven times. We know the competition beyond sprinting trips isn’t quite as deep in Australia as it is in Europe.

Nonetheless, the saying goes: you can only beat what’s put in front of you. And the way she’s done it, backing her performances up on the clock as well, has been pretty sensational.

One number stands out for me: 76 – it’s the number of Group 1 winners she has beaten in her races. It’s hard to argue Winx is not top-class. She is! And with supreme class come expectations that sometimes stay unfulfilled. For example the hope to see her travelling over to Royal Ascot.

I’ve no problem with that. Personally for me it doesn’t diminish her achievements. Seeing them in the right context is vital, though. Because, as mentioned before, the debate tends to be black and white, while the reality rarely is.

In the 2018 Timeform Global Rankings Winx (133) took second place behind Cracksman (134) – there is little evidence to support the notion she’d been worse than that – but also not much better than that – this year. This isn’t a knock on the mighty mare. Winx is a true star of our sport. So is Arc winner Cracksman – greats of their time. But neither is in the category of “the greatest of all time”.

Seeing it this way is a fair and balanced reflection on the achievements of this brilliant mare, in my eyes. It’s what she is – or was; a brilliant, classy and incredibly sound horse, competing at the top level over a variety of trips; outstanding in her part of the world, reigning over any rival who tried to take the crown off her.

Oh so many wonderful moments for the sport of horse racing. Isn’t that what it’s all about? The special bond between horse and human, showing in the affection of the general public for the mare, none more so today at Royal Randwick, where it was – of course – a sellout crowd, and even outside of the racecourse hundreds lined up on the streets lurking through the fences, only to get a glimpse of Winx.

Let’s not argue about good or bad, black and white, best or worst – let’s celebrate the final chapter of a great career of a great mare – Winx, you’re a champion.

…….

Photo Credit: 7HorseRacing

The Good, Bad & Ugly – Week #1:2019

It’s a new year – the time for a New Year’s Resolution: be more active on the blog again! Plain and simple.

The last year in particular I’ve focused on the betting side neglecting the other rather important side of why I initially started this blog a good eight years ago: to write about all the things I love about horse racing – the sport, the horses, the global aspect of the game!

So, with the new year still fresh, I gonna try to be a bit more (pro-) active: a few more insightful (hopefully!) columns, opinion pieces, educational stuff and so on – starting with the introduction of a new weekly column right here:

The Good, Bad & Ugly – a short review of all the good and not so good things in racing that caught my eye and lit up my emotions during the past week. Let’s get started with Week #1:2019!

good.pngThe Good:

Do It Again – he did it again, indeed! This imperious looking son of the great Twice Over and reigning Durban July champion, has followed up on his biggest triumph with another massive success.

On Saturday he was one of nine starters in South Africa’s premier 1 mile race, the Queen’s Plate, that took place at Kenilworth racecourse.

The powerful gelding overcame a slow pace and produced another stunning performance to get his head in front when it mattered most:


The Candy Man
– What a lovely name for a horse, isn’t it? The performance of this lad in a Handicap on Sunday at Australia’s Sunshine Coast was certainly as sweet as candy!

The grey missed the start completely, still standing in the gates while the others flew out to race. He was trailing the field by half a dozen lengths for half the race, until making a swift move to the rear of the field as the pace slowed. He then unleashed a devastating turn of foot in the home straight – WOW!

Watch a replay of this unreal performance here.

First winner of 2019 – It was the perfect start: first bet, first winner! Paparazzi strolled home on Wednesday in a Newcastle handicap to win as easy as he liked, despite a 12/1 price tag.

It’s those magic moments when the picture you painted in your mind beforehand comes to fruition in reality, as I concluded in the preview:

“This is the poorest opposition Paparazzi will encounter for quite some time. If a slow start doesn’t see him falling back too far too early he should run a huge race today.”

bad2The Bad:

Racing’s Staff Crisis – Becomes one of the biggest threats to the industry. It was reported over the weekend that there’s an estimated shortfall of around 1,000 staff in the UK. Brexit fears enhance the feeling of uncertainty in relation to employing foreign staff to offset the shortfall in yards.

Often long hours, not enough off-days and low pay – those are the main concerns brought forward. Understandably so: the stable staff is preparing the horses day in day out, hence they play a pivotal role in the industry.

If they can’t be retained in numbers enough to keep the show going, plus if the jobs aren’t attractive enough for new people to join, then the game is in incredible danger. Falling prize-money surely isn’t helping, particularly for smaller yards it adds even more pressure.

A viscous cycle: working long hours, physical work, often starting very early in the morning, ordinary pay at best – that isn’t attractive to a lot of young people these days.

Stable staff does it for the love of horses. Without this love and duty of care for the welfare of our equine athletes these wonderful people show any given day, horse racing would be long gone.

Add to this the rather low pay at times where everything else becomes more expensive and the possibility of Brexit which could make it harder for yards to employ foreign staff – there you have an existential crisis.

It was surprising to see it so blatantly called out by the biggest names in the sport over the weekend. Nicky Henderson commented that the threat is no longer only a threat but  it “has already become a reality”.

Now, not everything is black and white. Not all staff are impacted by issues the same way. Plenty love their job, enjoy their day to day doing, are paid well enough and feel treated fairly.

Not all, though, and there is, no doubt, a balanced and fair discussion needed right now – a solution oriented one that addresses issues. Because the issue of staff shortage is at the heart of the game.

badThe Ugly:

 A Bad Loss – “I’m excited as heck because I feel Blue Harmony could be supremely well handicapped in this race!”

I got that spectacularly wrong. Blue Harmony finished nearly last, never went a yard. There was zero confidence in the market either. The filly was obviously not as well in as I felt she is.

Well, that’s racing. Can happen. It was a 16/1 shot. But it hurts. Particularly if you go and shout it so loud as I did in my preview.

Irish racing video archive – Gone. Since Racing TV has taken over the rights to show Irish racing, the complete video archive of all races prior to 1st January 2019 are no longer accessible – neither on ATR, the Racing Post- and Sportinglife website and certainly not on the RTV site.

You couldn’t make it up, could you? They had months and months time to prepare for this transition. But they didn’t seem to think about this rather important piece – or shall we say didn’t care – which shows a complete disregard for the racing public.

Please also read my latest opinion piece on the matter: Racing’s Problems bigger than ATR vs RTV

Got your own ideas of what was good or not so good in the the last week? Want to share feedback? Let me know in the comments! 

Opinion: Racing’s Problems bigger than ATR vs RTV

The TV landscape has changed and we’re now well within the first week of these new times.

Racing UK has taken over the rights to show Irish racing (as well as Chelmsford), while At The Races, the long-standing television partner of Irish racing, is gone from the scene there – they’ve bagged themselves the prestigious courses of Ascot and Chester in turn.

There is a rich history of why the rights have moved in first place – you can dig into all the wonderful details here.

I’m more interested in how this first week went and what it means or doesn’t mean for the future of racing.

From all what I could gather up until this Saturday it was a pretty unspectacular change. The horses still ran at Fairyhouse, Tramore and Dundalk – in fact the evening coverage of the County Louth track on Friday was fairly good with the likes of Gary O’Brien and Kevin O’Ryan providing insightful thoughts and analysis.

Today, the first Saturday of the new year, I had the chance to watch the now re-branded Racing TV throughout a complete day – a busy enough day, where they showed live racing from Kempton, Sandown, Wincanton and Cork.

Apparently there was a bit of moaning going on after Racing TV’s New Year’s Day coverage, which was equally a busy day, where it all was put to the test for the first time. And I can see why, as today was probably not a different experience to the one RTV viewers were treated to last Tuesday.

It was race after race after race. Bang, bang, bang. A little bit of analysis squeezed in before and after some of the races, mainly around Sandown, to a lesser extend Wincanton, where commendable Lydia Hislop did her magic with the little time she had – as she usually does!

In truth, this sort of experience isn’t anything new, compared to the busy days on the flat throughout the summer. What is different now: Irish racing. It has to be squeezed in as well.

And that is a bit of a problem. Simply because there was little to no time to squeeze any sort of meaningful analysis of the Cork races in. Certainly not before their respective off. At least afterwards we got to enjoy a few words from the guys in the studio.

But what can you really analyse if you’ve got the maximum lengths of four of five sentences to say before it’s off to somewhere else, because the next race is waiting in line?

It’s a tough spot for RTV on days like this, so I wouldn’t knock them for the coverage. They tried their absolute best. Ultimately we were able to watch all the races. At least that!

In saying that: you do not need a proper TV channel (an expensive pay-TV one that is) for a glorified live stream of all the races. The expectations on a TV channel, particularly a specialist channel like Racing TV, is one that does provide expert commentary, meaningful insights and proper analysis to all the races it shows.

I wouldn’t say that’s always what you got on At The Races in the past. But of course Irish racing was a premium product for ATR, so they gave it ample airtime – even during the busier days.

This is where Irish racing and Irish racing fans do miss out, if the setup remains as it is right now: i.e. all on one channel. I don’t think as negatively about the fact that RTV is behind a paywall, though – I did so in the past; not anymore.

Yes, ATR is much easier accessible as it comes with your standard TV bundle in most cases. But that doesn’t mean its audience figures are anything to shout about.

Anywhere between an average of 40-70.000 people turn in for ATR’s most viewed weekly shows with a paltry average viewing time of 1 minute (weekly, per person) according to BARB figures. Racing UK in contrast has about 50.000 subscribers.

So the notion that there’ll be much less eye-balls on the Irish product may not be totally wrong, but is probably exaggerated at the same time.

Least we forget that, at least in Ireland, the biggest race days and Festivals are shown on RTE. That’s not to say the “accessibility” issue is a non-issue. It’s real and in truth makes it more difficult for someone to discover racing zapping through the channels.

I would argue the problems of the sport of horse racing in general and Irish racing in particular are bigger than that, though. Because in earnest, those who already have an interested in the sport will find a way to watch the races regardless. Either subscribing to RTV, or by watching the ‘free streams” bookies offer if you have a bet in a race.

In fact, I have a few friends who live outside of the UK and Ireland and therefore have zero access to either channel on TV. Guess what? They still find ways to watch the races they care about as well as ATR and RUK. It’s not that difficult if you want it.

In my view the currently (still) ongoing discussion doesn’t tackle the real problems at all. The situation with the TV channels appears to be simply a ‘nice’ distraction. Something to talk about that anyone can have an opinion on even though in reality it isn’t really changing all that much that radically and certainly won’t impact the sport in such a negative way as some commentators want to make us belief.

There are issues, though, that do have a very real impact on the sport in the long run:
race day experience for race goers and owners or the changing public perception against racing horses – accompanied by a lack of public knowledge/education on things like the whip – which is directly in line with the most fundamental questions:

How to attract a younger audience?
How to create a steady flow of (new) racing fans moving forward?
How to create a better betting product?
Which in turn is also about this point: the availability of more data for punters and racing fans. Sectional times, as one example.

These are real issues. Or at least question marks. The problem of the future isn’t whether Barry in Newbridge can watch the 6.45 from Dundalk on his TV for ‘free’. Because he’s watching it on his mobile in the DART on his commute home anyway.

Now, coming back to Irish racing on Racing TV – I actually do trust RTV to figure out how to give Irish racing proper airtime, even on busier days. Maybe a second channel? Potentially a digital one?

Who knows. Times are changing. TV isn’t everything these days. Sport goes digital as well. In a few years, Terrestrial TV won’t have anywhere near the importance it still has at this moment in time.

One thing that Racing TV and all the relevant stakeholders involved have been rightly criticized for this week: the replay shambles!

Come on, you guys had months and months time to sort this out! It shows a general disregard for racing fans. The fact historic (prior to 1st January 2019) replays of Irish racing + Chelmsford are gone right now is not acceptable in this day and age. In any other industry heads would roll for this type of stuff.

At least, so it seems, light is at the end of the tunnel and a temporarily solution has been found.

With that, I am moving downstairs again to enjoy the rest of the Kempton card. A rather sedated experience with only one race every half an hour to prepare for, compared to the frantic pace of the early Saturday afternoon.