In the run-up to last Saturday’s fantastic QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot there was a lot of adverse comment about the meeting being run on soft or, as it turned out, heavy ground.
One young Newmarket trainer was quoted as saying that he wouldn’t be running his horse in the new £250,000 Balmoral Handicap because the meeting was going to be run “on bad jumping ground” and that he thought it should be moved to earlier in the autumn.
Whichever way you look at it, that won’t happen. Because of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe meeting at Longchamp two weeks earlier, there is no room for manoeuvre.
It has to be held on this weekend and there is no point debating the whys and wherefores.
As for the ground, sure it was very deep, but no one jumps up and down when it’s soft ground every other year at the aforementioned Arc meeting. That’s accepted as part of the deal, and the meeting is no lesser for it.
Besides that, there are plenty of top-class performers who handle, even relish, slow ground. Who is anybody to say that they should be discriminated against?
As for the idea of covering the course in the run-up, the track would be making a rod for their own back. How could you predict when to lay the covers, never mind the huge expense involved? As long as the meeting is not in danger, it should be left alone.
An occupational hazard
We are in the latter half of a year that from early summer to late autumn has favoured the fast-ground performers. That is the way the cookie crumbles, but for those of us with soft-ground horses — and I defy any trainer to say that he has none — their owners have had to be patient in the extreme!
Despite this, a large chunk of Newmarket’s flagship July meeting was run on slow ground.
We have to accept the weather is an occupational hazard, and get on with it. For example, even in the driest September since who knows when, Newbury had half an inch of rain just before their two-day meeting. On the first day, one trainer’s right-hand man was complaining loudly about their watering policy. It had to be pointed out to him that with that much rain it mattered not how much water they had put on.
Even if it did, what did he expect in mid-September?
Changing the date of British Champions Day to earlier in the autumn will not guarantee better ground, so the argument is pointless.
Whether to water
As for watering, the debate will rage on. Many feel that the tracks overwater — that it discriminates against fast-ground horses, and that it changes the nature of a track’s surface.
This winter, Yarmouth are taking up the turf on their straight track to sort out the ridges that have become progressively worse, and there is a feeling that this has come about because of continuous watering.
There has also been a good deal of complaint about the same problem on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, mostly from the jockeys.
Memorably, after this year’s 1000 Guineas, the winning (brilliant) trainer Andre Fabre was asked if he had any prior concerns about his filly Miss France handling the conditions. He replied: “No, not all. The Rowley Mile is the best course in the world, we love it, horses love it, it is only some jockeys who don’t like it”. Monsieur Fabre is well known for his autocratic handling of jockeys, but he has a point.
The tracks are in a difficult position, if they don’t water and produce firm ground, they attract small fields, which is to no one’s advantage. Generally, they do a pretty good job.
I have a much bigger problem with some of the inaccurate forecasting of what their ground will be on race day. But that is a whole other can of worms, and a subject for another day.