Whether it be new whip rules, the creation of Champions Day, the introduction of 48-hour declarations, the adding of an extra day to the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot or the supposed softening of the Grand National fences, change is anathema to many. Indeed, in racing’s valley of Neander, there are still those who reckon the Derby should be run on a Wednesday.
However, almost without exception, the alterations of recent years have been justified. Rather than gimmickry sideshows, they have been positively beneficial for the sport. And so it was last weekend with the fantastic fare dished up by Sandown Park.
The Esher track’s decision in 2014 to scrap its traditional mixed Flat/Jumps card, which featured the old Whitbread Gold Cup, was not a universally popular one. But few can doubt the wisdom of it now. An extremely enjoyable afternoon of high-quality Flat action last Friday was followed by a fitting finale to the Jumps season 24 hours later when tub-thumping celebrations and action enthralled a huge crowd. Even the Whitbread itself, now the Bet365 Gold Cup, a race which was on its knees not so long ago, was seen to be fully reinvigorated.
Providing the fuel for most of the excitement, of course, was the thrilling climax to the race for the trainers’ championship between Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, who supplied no fewer than 29 of the 82 declared runners between them.
Triumph for either was presented as a worthy feat. After all, Nicholls had saddled only two Grade One winners all season and, by his own admission, had not been blessed by the strongest squad of horses. And Mullins had saddled only 26 winners in this country, compared to his rival’s tally of 121. Yet without VAUTOUR’S shock fall at Aintree, he’d have gone to Sandown in front.
Amazingly, the first three races ended with three seconds for Mullins and three thirds for Nicholls. But when the darling of Ditcheat also hit the bar in the big one, he trousered sufficient prize money to knock his rival out of the contest and clinch a tenth title in 11 seasons.
Both still found time to send out winners before the meeting was done, although a note of controversy was also left by Mullins, who withdrew one of his star attractions, VROUM VROUM MAG, once the spoils had been lost. He clearly broke the rules and merited a fine, but it was a bit rich of the Sandown stewards to accuse him of “wilful disregard for the interests of racegoers and punters” considering that by engaging in the duel in the first place and supporting the card with so many horses, he’d actually done the exact opposite.
Nicholls’s domination of the title is testimony to his dedication and drive, the kind that also propels the career of Richard Johnson, whose crowning as champion jockey at last, after 16 years as runner-up in the shadow of one AP McCoy, was another highlight of Sandown’s show.
While Johnson’s popularity is infectious, media tributes that are made to sportsmen and women on the grounds of their willing co-operation with the press, rather than their talent and achievements, often sit uneasily. And some of the coverage afforded the 38-year-old has been embarrassingly fawning towards a jockey whose record at major meetings is surprisingly ordinary and who occasionally infuriates punters with the over-egging of his fall-back riding style, which is gung-ho uber-aggression from the front. However, there is no doubt that for relentless reliability, clinical consistency and admirable attitude, Johnson is an ambassadorial asset to racing. And for sheer volume of winners, he is the only pilot who comes close to the mighty AP.
Appropriately, Johnson was among those winners at Sandown on hardy veteran MENORAH. But even the 11-year-old had to play second fiddle to SPRINTER SACRE, who cleaned up any superlatives that might have been left hanging around after Cheltenham. The renaissance of horses like Sprinter and CUE CARD has been among the many magical moments to take from the 2015/16 Jumps campaign, and yet I was pleasantly surprised that both were beaten to the horse of the year award by THISTLECRACK, considering such polls tend to put popularity before prowess. Colin Tizzard’s eight-year-old is as good as I’ve seen in 32 years of watching National Hunt sport, and a Gold Cup clash with CONEYGREE next March would be top of my wish-list for 16/17.
The general consensus is that it has been a vintage Jumps season, despite confirmation of its curiously lopsided schedule. Unlike the Flat, which moves seamlessly from one important meeting to another, the Jumps lacks narrative and continuity. It springs to life before Christmas, suffers a woeful hiatus through midwinter and then overwhelms us with spectacular spring action via Cheltenham, Aintree, Ayr, Sandown and Punchestown.
This is glossed over as irrelevant by those who would ignore National Hunt shortcomings even if they smacked them in the eye. And while the BHA, the tracks and the betting companies are definitely concerned, it’s hard to see how the annoying anomaly can be remedied. Maybe we should accept it as a sacrifice worth paying for the kind of day we got at Sandown.
Crunch weekend for O’Brien’s Guineas hotpots
Having jumped on the EMOTIONLESS bandwagon far too early, this weekend’s 2,000 Guineas is as much for me about what might have been as unearthing who might be the potential stars of the new Flat season.
Godolphin’s colt, who looked a wonder horse after demolishing Doncaster last September, does not even make the Qipco gig. So all eyes will be trained on AIR FORCE BLUE, a favourite as short as 4/6. While it’s true that Aidan O’Brien said last term he was the best juvenile he’s handled, he also stressed he’s a fast-ground horse and queried his suitability for a stiff 1m.
Mind you, he also said that his star filly, MINDING, would only be good enough at home to lead him to halfway before being blown away. And she’s a worthy hot favourite for the 1,000 Guineas 24 hours later.