Happy New Year to all my loyal followers! I hope you had a good Christmas. However, if you thought that this blog would shuffle meekly off stage to lurk in the shadows of the past, accompanied by the fading smile of the festive season, and that unusual shirt that an elderly relative gave you that was two sizes too small, then think again! Atried is back, renewed and reinvigorated after its festive break, to rummage around once more in the saddlecloth of this strange sport we call horse racing.
Despite this progressive outlook, I feel we should linger just a little longer in the past to revel in the highlights of a quite extraordinary year just gone. Like a fine wine, the true greatness of the 2015 vintage may only be assessed in the fullness of time, but even at this early stage the signs are encouraging that it shall be worthy of future note.
The major talking point at the start of the year was the announcement of AP McCoy’s retirement. Likeable Channel 4 frontman Rishi Persad was the one lucky enough to receive the worldwide scoop straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, when AP came back in after riding his 200th winner of the season at Newbury in February. Thus began two and a half months of media circus before the champ bowed out with much emotion, grace and humility at Sandown’s end of season bash in April.
In between announcement and retirement lay the Cheltenham Festival, as if you needed reminding of that. Every edition produces a hundred stories woven from a thousand strands, but the two stars that shone brightest in this incarnation were Willie Mullins and Coneygree. As a novice in only his fourth run over fences, Coneygree produced a display that was simply astonishing as he set a fierce gallop that none of his rivals could match, and it is a savage shame that he shall not defend his crown in March due to injury. The recent Festival dominance of Irish trainer Mullins continued as he trained a record eight winners, including a remarkable quartet on the opening day. The last of those, though, was not as expected – Annie Power’s fall at the last, with the race at her mercy, saved the bookies millions.
Talking of our bookmaking friends, we saw a year of consolidation in the betting world. Lawyers will tell you that you are unable to ask a competitor what they had for breakfast without the might of competition law bearing down upon you, so quite what the authorities will make of the proposed merger of Ladbrokes and Coral is anyone’s guess. If I were a betting man, I would guess that a significant chunk of the proposed conglomerate’s 4,000 betting shops would need to be sold to satisfy regulations. More likely to go through unscathed is the merger of online giant Betfair and Irish pranksters Paddy Power.
Assuming it does, they will have to find accord on the issue of Associated Betting Partner status. Nick Rust, head honcho at the BHA, announced that bookmakers who do not pay levy on their offshore digital operations would be barred from taking out new commercial deals, including sponsorship. Hence the 2015 BetFred Gold Cup shall now become the 2016 Timico Gold Cup. No, I hadn’t heard of them either.
Betfair, Bet365 and 32Red already contributed to the levy from their offshore operations voluntarily, a point which has become slightly lost in the whining of their rivals who are now throwing their tax-free toys out of the pram, and even in some cases threatening legal action. I have in the past been less than complimentary about some bookmakers, but these three should be applauded for their fair approach and have been rewarded with ABP status. I must mention that my online bookmaker of choice for many years, Bet365, have always acted honorably in our dealings (as they graciously accept my regular donations), and have a very good website too, where you can study form and watch previous races. If any of you are hoping to try your luck with a new bookie in the new year, you could do worse than the Stoke-born operation.
At the end of June we learned of the sad death of Kauto Star. A list of his achievements, however long and impressive, cannot describe the brilliance of his victories or the bravery of his defeats, and will never convey the loss felt by the racing world in general. Some say he was the best since Arkle, but most of us have never seen Arkle. Whoever our personal favourites are, most of us would agree Kauto Star was the best racehorse of a generation. He will be remembered.
On the flat, Luke Morris rode 189 winners from an astonishing 1515 rides, but the flat jockeys championship went to Silvestre De Sousa despite him riding 34 less winners than Morris, due to the artificial constriction of the championship dates. Ryan Moore usurped Mullins by winning nine times at Royal Ascot, before taking his extraordinary skills around the world. Golden Horn added the Cartier Horse of the Year title to his wins in the Derby, Eclipse, Irish Champion and Arc. The only horse in the world to be rated higher was American Pharaoh, the US Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic hero. In the stayers division, in an extraordinary sequence of events, Simple Verse won, then lost (in the stewards enquiry), then won (on appeal) the St Leger.
The end of the year brought more recognition for AP McCoy. Along with his first steps into broadcasting on Channel 4, he was awarded the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year ceremony, and then became Sir Anthony in the New Years Honours List. Sandwiched between those two events was a quite exhilarating King George from Kempton on Boxing Day. Cue Card must be one of the most popular chasers in training, and his last-gasp lunge of a victory was a rousing and righteous one. He allies class, speed and longevity to that strangely attractive quality of vulnerability. He has tasted stinging defeat in the past, but this tremendous finale to our horse racing year seemed to balance the scales.
But enough of the past – it will not tell me who wins the next race. I have form to study for the rearranged Welsh National, which is of course, in a way, looking backwards in order to look forwards, and we have a lot to look forward to in 2016. I wish you the best of luck for the coming year.