Went to the races as a paying punter today for the first time in ages. UK racing isn't cheap at the best of times, flat racing doesn't have the excitement most of the year and it's rather cold during jumps season. TV coverage is decent enough if you can't get to the track as often as you'd like.
The two main races today at Newbury, the Long Distance Hurdle and the Hennessy showed just why National Hunt racing is miles ahead of flat racing in popularity in the UK & Ireland. Big Buck's is the best staying hurdler in training, he won the top races at Cheltenham and Aintree in his class, and is going around again to repeat the feat. He faced a small, but quality field at level weights and won very, very easily. Special thanks to the bookies who put up 1/2. It is very rare I bet at those odds, but this horse should have been 1/3 at best, so the value had to be taken.
The Hennessy is the best handicap chase of the season. Note that key word which some purists detest... 'handicap'. We saw a Gold Cup winner line up, carry 12lb more than any other horse in the field, and beat the lot of them to win this race for the second time in three years. And this was no bunch of hacks he beat, there were numerous Grade 1,2 and 3 winners in the field and Denman gave most of them at least a stone in weight. Punters backed him into 5/2 after as much as 9/2 was available in the morning, and the crowd went nuts when he fought off the challenge of What A Friend (who I'd backed) to win.
The champions of National Hunt racing come back year after year. They take on all-comers in handicaps and set weights events, not sticking rigidly to their own sex, age group or WFA races. They are prepared to take on the best to be the best. Flat racing is full of flash in the pans who have one outstanding season and then nick off to stud. Flat racing panders to the breeders - there are Group 1 races for every category and little incentive to leave their comfort zone - it might endanger the precious studbook records. And don't get me started about overly precious owners who pull their horses out if the ground isn't exactly right.
As much as I've bagged Aussie racing in the past for having handicaps as Group 1s, perhaps there is some merit in it. The 'big five' races in Australia are the Melbourne Cup (3200m handicap), Golden Slipper (1200m 2yo set weights), Cox Plate (2040m WFA), Doncaster Hcp (1600m handicap) and the Caulfield Cup (2400m handicap). Only one of those races can be won once. The truly great horses who win the other four races are those who come back and defend their crown. And each of those handicap races attracts the cream of the crop at that distance, they are quality fields.
Sea The Stars was an aberration. Next year we'll be back to a crop of good 3yos without a superstar capable of taking it to the older brigade in Britain, Ireland and Europe. But until a horse is prepared to take on allcomers, giving away weight, and coming back to defend a title once, twice or even more, then does that horse really deserve the title of champion? Roger Federer is not a champion because he won Wimbledon once. He's a champ because he came back and did it again. And again. And again.
Breeders are as responsible as anyone for flat racing's malaise. Too many horses being bred, too many inflated yearling prices and too little of that money going back into prizemoney. Racing For Change has a lot of work to do. If they want to build emotional attachment to flat horses like the jumpers, then break down the wall between set weight and handicap races, and the ridiculous separation of colts and geldings in the classics. Get some high class handicap races on the calendar and create incentives for the cream of the crop to get in there. The public loves a good handicap race - it gives the underdog a chance, the small budget owner and trainer rather than the mega-rich sheiks and super stables. Can you guess how many times Sea The Stars conceded weight to another horse? Even at the next level down, the 'mere mortals', it is extremely rare you ever see them compete in a handicap race. There's a huge class divide that never seems to be crossed, or at least crossed over and then back. Flat racing has to dissolve the class divides.
Championship races at level weights too often have small fields, or only a handful of runners capable of winning in a big field. You'll get a longshot winner like Mine That Bird (Kentucky Derby 2009) or Rebel Raider (Victoria Derby 2008), but usually they'll just be written off as a fluke or a poor crop of horses that year. Handicaps balance it up, and give the beaten contingent hope for another crack at it next year. But most of all, they give the public a chance to cheer for the underdog or give a rousing ovation to the champion who was prepared to give weight to all challengers and still greet the judge first.
Handicaps will never replace the championship races - but they do deserve their place at the top end of racing so we can see which 'champions' really are prepared to do it tough, not just competing when everything is in their favour. If racing wants the public to pay for the 'show' (as they must if bookmakers are to return more to the industry), then give them what they want and stop pandering to the breeders.