A look back at this years flat season – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Strictly speaking this blog is somewhat premature. The November Handicap officially signals the end of the flat season however with the Jumps Season starting and the All Weather season just around the corner it strikes me as a good time to take a look back and analyse some of the key features surrounding this year’s flat season.
I managed to catch a Youtube stream previewing Qipco British Champion’s day early last week. It was hosted by Racing Uk’s Oli Bell and one statement he made really grated on me as a flat enthusiast. In fact there has been similar statements thrown around by Channel 4 and even AtTheRaces got involved. The statement in basic terms suggested that this year’s flat season has been sensationally brilliant. Perhaps not said in those explicit terms but overwhelmingly the feeling I have received from commentators/presenters is that this flat season has been unequivocally brilliant. I do take into consideration that their position of thought may be compromised by their role in promotion however it does grate on me that they would choose to promote something that really isn’t there. This flat season has not been brilliant it’s as simple as that. It’s been good, bad and sometimes ugly.
Talk to a punter and he’d tell you this season has been one of the best. Big field handicaps are punter’s delight and we have had them in abundance this year. Increased price money has attracted larger numbers and better horses to the field. You practically have to be a group rated horse to swoop one of these races nowadays. That point is perfectly emphasised by the Richard Fahey trained Growl. Growl has finished 4th in the Bunbury Cup, 4th in the Stewards Cup, 2nd in the Ayr Gold Cup, 6th in the Challenge Cup but yet comes to British Champion day and finishes 2nd in the group 1 Champion Sprint. The facts are this horse has gone as close to winning a big field handicap as he has done to winning a group 1 which goes to show how good a horse you have to be to pick up one of these races nowadays.
These cavalry charge events are becoming more and more popular and I for one adore them. There’s nothing quite like it and the more we have scheduled throughout the racing calendar the better. Draw bias has been a consistent puzzle all year depending on the track and at tracks like York and Goodwood it adds that little bit more spice to an already hot event.
Talk to a purist and he’d tell you this has been one of the most disappointing flat seasons for a few years. Don’t get me wrong it’s been exciting, it’s been enjoyable and entertaining but in terms of star quality this season has been somewhat lacking. I was watching the Arc the other day with a very close friend who follows horse racing just as passionately as I do. The race finished and he turned to me and said ‘I never thought I’d see Found winning the Arc.’ I laughed, shook my head and shrugged it off in annoyance because I and he were on the Japanese raider who pulled up quickly injured. Nevertheless the comment made an impact and I found (pardon the pun) myself later that night pondering over what he had said. There is a distinction to be made here because I don’t want to be the subject of an Aidan O’Brien fan club rage. I’m not saying for one second that Found isn’t a good horse nor am I saying that she didn’t deserve to win the race, but I do agree with my friend’s statement. In truth ‘I never thought I’d be seeing Found win an Arc.’ At the end of the day there is a reason this horse has finished runner up in 11 grade 1’s. She is a very good horse but she isn’t World Class and it does put into question the quality on offer during this year’s Arc.
With that said we may also question the quality on offer at this year’s Derby. Harzand ran out this year’s winner but yet was beaten 10l’s or more in the Arc by a horse who has been beaten in 11 group 1’s. To put this into perspective Golden Horn won last year’s Derby and went on to win the Arc with Found 5l’s behind in 9th. The Arc and The Derby are meant to be the two stand-out event’s on the racing calendar, yet with both I can’t help but feel the quality on offer has been far below that available in previous years. U.S Army Ranger has done little to give the form much substance, while we know exactly where we are with the likes of Highland Reel and Order of St George in behind Found. One thing we can note is that the four horses mentioned are all trained by Aidan O’Brien.
His dominance this season has become somewhat comical, however, I feel as though his dominance only highlights a more serious issue surrounding the inferiority of his competitors. The English contingent have had a torrid time of it this year, a virus has interfered with the majority of Newmarket handlers while some yards just haven’t had the necessary ammo to mount a challenge. Godolphin attempted to put up a wall with Blue Point but Aidan O’Brien’s Churchill smashed straight through it. John Gosden sent out Wing’s Of Desire but he was outclassed by two Irish raiders in the Derby and Order of St George took the field apart in the Ascot Gold Cup. Currently Aidan O’Brien trained horses head the betting for the 2017 1000/2000 Guineas, The Derby, The Oaks, The Commonwealth Cup and The Ascot Gold Cup to name just a few. His strong hold on the British racing scene doesn’t appear to be stopping and the English contingent really need to up there game if they plan on stopping this whitewash anytime soon.
Channel 4’s time in the saddle has almost come to a close and they played out their last coverage of any flat season in typical boring fashion. Graham Cunningham and his team of cronies attacked one of our sport’s leading trainers like a pack of wolves surrounding their prey. Mark Johnston remained calm and responded by doing what he does best, winning race after race at Glorious Goodwood. The whole stunt only highlighted Graham Cunningham’s deficiencies as a racing pundit. Unable to separate his personal views and anger from the job in hand, he was only successful in portraying himself and Channel 4, as a team of bullies who struggle to accept constructive criticism. Nick Luck and Mick Fitzgerald were perhaps the only presenters to come away with credit after another season of solid work behind the camera.
Moving onto next year and ITV’s new cast has only recently revealed. They have practically hired everybody on board racing’s Noah’s Ark so let’s hope they can put together some good ideas and produce a show we all want to tune in too. Ed Chamberlin is a likeable appointment to head the programme, while the booking of Matt Chapman who will lead the betting ring operation strikes me as a significant move towards a new image and representation.
Looking ahead to next year and some horses we should keep in the notebook are as follows:
Hugo Palmer’s – Wall of Fire. This horse really excites me and I just hope he trains on as his current best price for The Ascot Gold Cup looks worth a few each way pennies.
Sir Mark Prescott’s – Marsha. Progressive all year this sprinter ran out an impressive of The Prix D’Abbaye.
Aiden O’Brien’s – Churchill. The class act this year and if he trains on with surely take all the beating in the Guineas.
David Simcock’s – Sheikzayedroad. He capped a brilliant campaign off by a solid win in the Long Distance Cup.
Michael Dods – Easton Angel. Developed nicely this year and with the retirement of yard favorutie Mecca’s Angel the door is now opened for a new star.
Godolphin’s – Blue Point. Will need to better efforts this year but that is possible as he looks the type to improve next year.
Alan King’s – Master Blueeyes. Progressive over middle distances all year and looks the type that may be aimed at an Ebor plot.
Aiden O’Brien’s – Rhododendron. All the rage in the ante-post market for multiple races, he will need to train on but that is entirely possible.
Michael Bell’s – Big Orange. Hit new heights this year and I am throwing this one in as I feel he may run out a special winner of The Melbourne Cup.
Clive Cox’s – Priceless. An interesting improver from the Cox’s yard and rounded off a superb season with a solid win when stepped up to listed class.
Next Tuesday I will be posting a blog looking ahead towards this year’s AW season and this will be followed a week later by a preview blog looking at the race that stops a nation – The Melbourne Cup.