Last week’s Chetenham Festival was the last to be screened by Channel 4. From 2017 British racing will be found on ITV, on a mixture of both ITV1 for the feature days and ITV4 for the more mundane fare. ITV4 has a good track record of this, having taken on the mantle of the Tour De France with aplomb, mainly by keeping the format and presenters very similar. So it is premature to think we may never see the C4 line-up again, although the feeling in many quarters (including my own) is that the product is tired and in need of significant tweaking, if not major overhaul.
A sparkling four days of top-quality racing could not paper over the cracks in the programme. The Morning Line was a curious mish-mash of bits and pieces, often without much racing. We were treated to go-karting, video diaries, endless interviews with trainers, jockeys and bookies that revealed almost nothing of interest, and an agonisingly inept feature on two men sitting in a field looking miserable. As Ruby himself said, plonked cold and disgruntled next to a similar AP “Who thought this was a good idea?”
The smorgasbord of mundanity was surprisingly bereft of two regular features that I would suggest most punters were tuning in for on the morning of a Festival – a going update, and some in-depth analysis of the form. One or two of the feature races were briefly examined, but with the peerless Pricewise and an extensive catalogue of video form on hand, it seemed an unbalanced approach.
Never mind, I thought, as I was going to luxuriate in four days of stunning action that for the first time would be watched live from my sofa, rather than squeezed into a late night gap at x6 or rammed into the seething maelstrom of the Festival terraces. As the camera panned across the human carpet just before the first race, I knew I had made the right decision to stay at home. I could watch the horses with ease – in the paddock, on the way to the start, through the race, and in the winners’ enclosure without moving an inch and, significantly, without 63 other people invading my personal space and obscuring my view of the telly.
I made myself leisurely and reasonably priced lunches without scrimmaging or waiting (Lee Mottershead wrote a lovely piece in the Racing Post about securing a crab salad for £18 that had one and a half leaves of lettuce), and when I wanted a drink I went to the kitchen and got one. My bets were considered and obtained at the best prices, given the extra time I had to get these things right. If Gold Cup day last year was like being fed into a rotary cultivator of frenetic emotion, this year was like drifting on a placid lake of mindfulness. Did my sofa lack the atmosphere of Prestbury Park? Yes. Did I mind? Not one bit.
Without the agitation and the hassle, I settled and savoured a vintage year of intriguing contests and rousing finishes. Mullins, who had brought over more horses than most trainers have in their entire stable, dominated proceedings again, and the bookies took a severe beating, but he had some significant failures as well. One of those was Un De Sceaux in the Champion Chase, who seemed to be going ominously well at the top of the hill. Sprinter Sacre was in contrast being niggled, and the camera took a low perspective as they came down the hill, so it was stunning to realise that he was then upsides the odds-on favourite, and then past him, and over the final fence, and victorious despite the advancing years and various ailments. Grown men wept. Fairytales are still alive and well in this strata of sport.
But not all races produced the stuff of legend and the Gold Cup, one of the few major prizes to still elude Mullins, had a hollow ring to it, at least for me. Cue Card fell when just taking the lead, and of course many notables (see last week’s blog) had failed to turn up. Don Cossack put in a great performance, but the shadow of incompleteness fell across his victory. Maybe next year we will be treated to the perfect race, where all the superstars arrive fighting fit and are allowed to compete for the blue riband of the jumping game? Maybe not.
You see, the sport is now dominated by the elite to such an extent that the top trainers and owners are switching their extensive firepower between races like ordering cavalry around the battlefield. Mullins did this to supreme effect during the week, despite occasionally getting it wrong, and an incredible 10 races were won by favourites in this most competitive of arenas.
And this dominance has not gone unnoticed by the punter, many of whom would have gone home thinking that backing the powerhouses was like printing money. The most astonishing sight of the week was fans wearing pink scarves to represent their allegiance to owner Rich Ricci. I never thought I would say it, but perhaps Paul 2 had it right at Epsom when he described the idea of team colours. These supporters would, I assume, have no personal connection to the American millionaire, other than the fact that his army won them a lot of money last week. Perhaps that is enough.
However, the occasional defeat of hot favourites such as Min and Un De Sceaux also highlighted the perennial truism that is the effect of the going on the results. Every year we select our hopes through the winter slogs in deep ground, and then seem perplexed when the form is turned upside down on the traditional good ground of Festival week. This year’s incarnation was run on ground bordering on fast, and it seemed that my throwaway comment to JP at Newbury a few weeks earlier was surprisingly accurate. They did indeed water the track, and it still produced very fast times.
An early realisation of this helped me secure a small profit on the week, despite not traditionally being a favourite-backer, but was no help at all to my ante-post fancies, most of whom didn’t even run in the races I’d backed them for. Sooner or later I might realise it’s a mug’s game. There’s always next year…..