Whipping up a frenzy

‘Fake news’ is everywhere, no more such glaring example being the survey which rated horseracing an untrustworthy sport

I don’t think I’d heard the term ‘fake news’ until the new US President started to blather on about it. But since Donald Trump’s inauguration I’ve been on the look-out for examples in my little world, and they haven’t been at all hard to come by.

Some examples have come close to providing me with an apoplectic fit over my breakfast reading material. I never thought the Racing Post would do that to me

I’ve been finding quite a few lately, some of them coming close to providing me with an apoplectic fit over my breakfast reading material. I never thought the Racing Post would do that to me.

Exhibit one came shortly after Royal Ascot on a page devoted to suggestions as to how the meeting might be improved. There were five of them, four failing to stimulate me to care either way, but the fifth hit a raw nerve – the one that appeared under the heading ‘High time Coventry became a Group 1.’

I dare say the writer was unaware that this ridiculous notion was put to the Pattern Committee two or three years ago and summarily rejected. Raising this non-issue again was reassuringly doomed to fail, but how extraordinary it should be proposed as though the Coventry’s case for promotion was obvious.

His flawed argument was compounded by the thought that there might be an added benefit in persuading more connections of sprinting two-year-olds to keep them in training instead of going to stud. More realistically, victory in a Group 1 Coventry would persuade connections that the colt had already done enough.

Exhibit two was the outrageous article calling for racing without the whip, surely the most irresponsible piece of racing journalism in recent years. There was no issue, the case for the whip has been proved time and again, and its use is effectively policed by rules that are rigidly enforced.

Of course, the heresy was rightly and swiftly condemned on all sides, but it remains astonishing that anyone could write a piece so potentially damaging to the sport he had a duty to promote, and that it could be sanctioned for publication.

Exhibit three was one from the letters page, and on a topic that has been buried and resurrected a few hundred times during my stint in this profession, and doubtless on numerous occasions before then. Every generation brings disbelievers, and directing them down the true path never seems to become easier.

I refer, as you probably guessed, to the weight-for-age scale, a formulation devised by Admiral Henry Rous in the middle of the 19th century, and subjected to modifications from time to time since then. The idea that younger horses should receive an allowance of weight from their elders had long been recognised, and race conditions were framed accordingly.

In the 1850 Doncaster Cup, run over two and a half miles, there were only two runners, both of them winners of the Derby and St Leger. Four-year-old The Flying Dutchman was required to concede 19lb to three-year-old Voltigeur, and he came up short by half a length. The pair were to meet again the following May in a match over two miles at York, and Rous was entrusted with setting the weights for a contest that stimulated enormous interest. He set the now five-year-old The Flying Dutchman to give four-year-old Voltigeur 8½lb, and the outcome was a win for the former by one length.

That race proved that Rous was a sound judge of form with a ready appreciation of how different generations could be assessed in relation to each other at different times of the year. The scale of weight-for-age he published in 1851 became the standard for racing in Britain, and nobody cared to dispute it in the following quarter of a century when Rous ruled as virtual Dictator of the Turf.

Enable won the King George because she was in a different league to her rivals

Sure, the experience of 140 years of competition since Rous’s death has led to some adjustments to the scale, but the principle he established still holds good. This year’s Eclipse Stakes brought stars of two generations together magnificently, with four-year-old Ulysses thwarting three-year-old Barney Roy by a nose while conceding 10lb. The notion that Enable was gifted the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes by virtue of the 14lb she received from year-older Ulysses is a nonsense; she was simply in a different class, overwhelmingly superior.

The result was manifestly fair; it would have been grossly unfair to require her to run against her seniors at level weights. Henry Rous had a keener understanding of inter-generation competition than many of today’s pundits.

My exhibit four is the frankly absurd outcome of a survey that suggests the public regard racing as crooked, supposedly trusted less than ten other sports, and ahead only of football among the dozen cited. Here is fake news indeed, and I have to wonder where the pollsters found the 2,000 people who were canvassed; did any of them actually have a clue about or interest in any sports?

Glossing over the fact that darts (top) and snooker (fourth) are parlour games rather than sports, were the respondents unaware of the scandals that have beset such as cricket (sixth), cycling (eighth) and athletics (ninth) in recent years? Racing and football have been pretty much squeaky-clean by comparison.

However, I am bound to acknowledge that there is widespread ignorance about racing where the general public is concerned. Not so long ago a taxi driver who dropped me off at the Rowley Mile course told me that he was a Newmarket native and had made thousands of journeys to the track, but had never been inside. ‘Well, it’s all fixed, isn’t it?’ he said. People will believe what they want to believe and often won’t be persuaded to think differently.

Of course, there is a long history of skulduggery on the Turf, and devotees have been known to glamorise some of the rogues and their misdeeds, rather as many tended to admire the perpetrators of the Great Train Robbery. But history it is, and in my time following the sport instances of malpractice have become fewer and farther in between.

Back in the 1960s an evening spent in and out of the High Street pubs would often yield the answer to the following day’s juvenile maiden, as only two or three in a huge field would be triers. I well recall one such event – 45 runners and a 6-4 favourite who duly won by five lengths. Most of the opposition were ‘not off a yard’ as we used to say.

And I remember an end-of-season sale catalogue in which one entry was said to have had ‘a couple of runs for educational purposes only.’ That was a two-year-old owned by the Jockey Club’s senior steward. Non-triers were tolerated almost to the point of encouragement.

I was once given a guaranteed winner by a pal privy to some choice information. The favourite and his chief rival had rehearsed their race on a private gallop and the second favourite had won easily. The result was the same when they did it for real.

And when I quizzed a long-retired jockey as to whether he had ever ridden in a ‘bent’ race, he recounted an incident that went wrong. It was a three-runner race up north in the days before stalls, and the horse who was supposed to win whipped round at the start and lost so much ground that the jockeys on the other pair had to accept that waiting for him would give the game away. I checked it out in the form book, which confirmed what I’d been told.

Did I ever witness a crooked race? I think I did once, again back in the sixties, though nothing could be proved. But there was a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that I felt inclined to believe.

I can see why some folks might lack confidence in the integrity of racing, because a sport so inextricably linked with betting is virtually bound to invite suspicion. But genuine devotees know that in the 21st century effective policing make it one of the cleanest of sports.

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