Not since the Second World War can the passing of an old year have been greeted so zealously, coupled with apprehensive hope rather than confident expectation that life for the forthcoming twelve months will be just that little bit brighter.
Racing has been hit hard, like so many sectors of society, but in the main has withstood the onslaught of Covid blows like a prize fighter on the ropes, is still standing resolute and is ready to come on strong in 2021.
There remain many challenges ahead for the incoming BHA Chief Executive Julie Harrington, but thankfully the thoroughbred race horse is blissfully ignorant of them and will continue to entertain us with speed, athleticism, aesthetic beauty and courage.
Interest in racing is often as much about the expectation and anticipation as the actual event. Punters feverishly endeavour to solve daily and long range ante post puzzles, analysing form books, videos and sectional timings interspersed with the unknown imponderables such as weather, ground, draw bias and stable form. There is certainly a whole feast of action to look eagerly forward and banish the worst of 2020 to the distant recess of our minds.
As ever, it is the horses that have centre stage to inspire and excite and I highlight just a few of the stars we can expect to see as we progress throughout this racing calendar year.
There can be no better start than Tramore on New Year’s Day, when all being well the double Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo will make his seasonal re appearance and follow the same tried and tested route to Prestbury Park to defend his Crown again. If successful he will be the first horse since Best Mate (2002-4) and only the fifth ever to win steeplechasing’s Blue Riband three times.
Willie Mullins’ star who turns nine today, has arguably not captured the imagination of the racing public that his exploits are entitled to deserve. The paucity of his appearances is perhaps a contributory factor, but his trainer has found the formula to him and having done so would be foolish to depart. There is no hiding place in the Gold Cup, which often leaves a mark few horses can recover from( Might Bite is the best recent example). Perhaps it is no coincidence that Best Mate was also very lightly campaigned. It is sad that no spectators will be there for the seasonal debut, an above average attendance would have undoubtedly turned out had they been permitted.
You would expect to see a facile victory, which will tell us little about what will happen in March, suffice to say the reigning champ will be the one they all have to beat, whether established Gold Cup horses or rising stars from the novice ranks.
There is plenty of competitive action throughout the month culminating with Trials Day at Cheltenham on the last Saturday. The Cleeve Hurdle and Cotswold Chase take centre stage, won respectively last season by Paisley Park and Santini; both are likely to reappear for their last piece of competitive action before the Festival six and a half weeks later. It is always a high quality, fascinating and informative day’s racing.
Attention switches to other side of the Irish Sea for the Dublin Racing Festival on 6/7th February. No less than eight Grade One races and over two million Euros in prize money.
This is the fourth year of the exciting concept of merging three New Year stand-alone fixtures at Leopardstown into one bumper weekend. Racing folk are very much creatures of habit and it is fair to say that this new two day meeting is yet to have embedded itself fully in the annals of the National Hunt game. Whether this Festival grows to match the success of Irish Champion’s weekend on the flat remains to be seen, however it is still very early days.
2019 was not helped by the unusually dry winter which resulted in smaller than ideal fields. There has been much debate about the scarcity of English entries, given the prize money on offer and often, well-aired English complaints at the lack of available races this side of the Irish Sea in certain divisions.
Opinion remains very much divided.
Are the English running scared of taking on the Irish in their own back yard? Fear is probably too strong a word, but with the combination of travel and fiercely competitive racing there is genuine concern that stable stars may suffer come Cheltenham and Aintree. Warren Greatrex’s La Bague Au Roi did conquer at Leopardstown two years ago, but she was never the same horse after and has now retired. To counter that, there is a school of thought that many English horses are simply undercooked in terms of hard competition come The Festival. With over five weeks in between, there is arguably sufficient recuperation and fine-tuning time, to arrive at Prestbury Park absolutely spot on. That said; only three winners at Dublin in the last two years went on to follow up in March. It is also worth bearing in mind that very few English horses travelled over historically to contest races such as the Irish Champion Hurdle and Gold Cups. Two horses I believe would definitely benefit from making the trip to contest the Irish Gold Cup are Champ of Nicky Henderson and Lostintranslation from Colin Tizzard’s yard. Both would be suited by the better ground they would be likely to encounter and the former definitely would benefit from the match practice in terms of his jumping.
The arguments will roll inconclusively on, but what is guaranteed is a weekend to be savoured, with some top drawer competition, after which the picture for Cheltenham will be distinctly clearer.
The highlight for me will be the Irish Champion Hurdle where Honeysuckle will be looking to follow up last year’s victory. I hope she can do so convincingly and persuade connections to let her have a crack in the same at Cheltenham rather than the easier option of the Mares Hurdle. Having already won that contest she would have nothing to lose by taking her chance.
There is only one meeting that counts this month and that is The Festival. The fear that the four days are becoming too overwhelming for the remainder of the National Hunt season is a realistic concern, but with the product being so good, the phenomenon that is Cheltenham is hard to resist. Support for a move to extend to five days, driven by market forces, may gather even more of a momentum as the sport seeks to replenish its’ depleted coffers. I personally would be sad to see the quality diluted even further, however the reality is that if the two and a half mile novice handicap chase was restored, then you only would need to find one more contest to spread to thirty races, split over one day longer.
It is unlikely that we will see the usual mass crowds and it is vitally important that the meeting hits the headlines for all the right reasons. Last year Cheltenham was disgracefully and unfairly castigated as the major source of coronavirus being spread nationwide. Twelve months on I very much hope that we are treated to a showcase spectacle of National Hunt Racing in the magnificent natural amphitheatre that sits beneath Cleeve Hill.
There is certainly no shortage of superstars to see. Envoi Allen probably tops the list. All roads point to the Marsh Chase as the next step on his path to the Gold Cup in 2021. His presence is likely to see other top novices swerve the intermediate distance and line up in either The Arkle or RSA, making those contests even more competitive. Those who take the two mile option will meet Shishkin who could very well be in the same elevated bracket as Altior and Sprinter Sacre.
The former will seek to regain his Champion Chase crown, but will have turned eleven and has it all to do against a resurgent Politologue, the defending champion. Hopefully the fragile Chacun Pour Soi will make it to the start this year fit and ready to do himself justice. This is usually the most exciting race of the week and if the three current market leaders line up, that would be probably guaranteed again.
The racing calendar for the spring months will be warmly welcomed , having been lost to Covid in 2020. Undoubtedly the showpiece of the sport is the Grand National at Aintree.
The meeting itself has evolved into a top class festival in its’ own right, although usually difficult from a punting perspective as there is always an element of guesswork as to how much Cheltenham has taken out of those horses who compete again.
If he makes it, media attention will be intense on Tiger Roll’s bid to emulate Red Rum’s three victories. Personally I only hope he runs if 110%. He has plenty of miles on the clock, having won the Triumph Hurdle back as a four year old in 2014. He owes nothing to the sport. He will have it all to do, under a big weight against younger horses and may have missed his best opportunity as a result of the virus. The race is a totally different affair from the 1970’s, when suiting specific Aintree horses. Today it is a top class handicap, with stronger and deeper competition. Although it would be fantastic for the wider appeal of the sport if he could pull it off, my fear is that it could backfire massively should he get injured.
Just three days later, the transition to the turf flat season kicks into gear with the Craven meeting at Newmarket. As a former resident, I have been fortunate enough to experience the vibe of expectancy in the town as the longer days and the warmth of the spring sunshine arrive. An unknown class of 2021 two year olds, a new Classic generation to look forward to and seasoned older horses remaining in training
The BHA, often much maligned, deserve enormous credit for the management of a condensed fixture list last season, but it will be great to get the traditional build up to the classics back. There was much conjecture as to the quality of the three year old crop last season but their development was forced to take a different course, which could explain why they may have been underwhelming. Aidan O’Brien has made specific mention of the difficulties he encountered.
The first weekend sees the opening two Classics with the 2000 and 1000 Guineas over the undulations of the Rowley Mile. The Colt’s Classic on each of the last two years’ has not seen the Champion Two Year old prevail. Too Darn Hot in 2019, who did not even make the race and Pinatubo last year, failed to match the high levels of expectancy created by their juvenile campaign. Horses develop and peak at different stages and whether that transcends to early May is always a fascinating conundrum.
The trials will have been informative to an extent, but Aidan O’Brien tends not to give his best chances a prep run. He trains the top two in the market with Battleground and St. Mark’s Basilica. The latter won a red hot Dewhurst in the autumn, which the former missed recovering from a bout of coughing. His second however in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile over a course that wouldn’t have suited, was impressive on his first run back and I expect him to shorten further over the coming months.
The 1000 Guineas favourite Simply Gorgeous, trained by the young apprentice Joseph O’Brien, reminds a little me of last year’s winner Love. I am not convinced that she handled coming down the dip at Newmarket in the Fillies Mile, but she was strong as she hit the rising ground and will be the one they all have to beat.
May also sees the much welcomed return of two wonderful meetings which fell victim to the 2020 lockdown, Chester and the Dante at York.
The Oaks and Derby on 4th/5th are often easier to assess in terms of form as most runners will have shown their hand. The current favourites are both trained by Aidan O’Brien Santa Barbara and High Definition and have only had three runs between them. One that may enter the picture is the more battle hardened Van Gogh who got better throughout the season for Ballydoyle and absolutely bolted up in the Grand Criterium at Saint Cloud.
The third week in June is synonymous with Royal Ascot and you would hope that there will be royalty and crowds to see the finest meeting in terms of quality anywhere in the World. The pandemic scuppered the usual level of international competition last year, all being well the meeting will regain its’ usual cosmopolitan atmosphere in 2021.
It will be fascinating whether the four year olds who have remained in training prove to be better than anticipated from their three year old form. Mogul is one that certainly could. Aidan O’Brien firmly believes this Galileo colt suffered from the changes to the programme last year and that the best is yet to come. He certainly put it all together when winning the Grand Prix de Paris and more recently the Hong Kong Vase.
The highlight of the meeting, as it always should be is the Ascot Gold Cup with Stradivarius attempting to match Yeats’ fourth victory in the race. It will be fascinating to see as there are many young pretenders potentially lining up to take his crown such as Galileo Chrome, Trueshan, Santiago and Tiger Moth. John Gosden’s chestnut was imperious last year albeit the field was not of the highest quality, but a year older and facing stronger opponents, he will have a real fight on his hands.
As mid-summer arrives, the season rolls on to the delights of the July Festival at Newmarket and then Glorious Goodwood three weeks later. Two beautiful courses and real social highlights in Suffolk and West Sussex respectively.
We will enjoy the first clashes between this year’s three year old crop and the older generations, kicking off with the Eclipse at Sandown over 10 furlongs and the King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot at the end of the month over a mile and a half. The latter’s importance in the calendar has diminished slightly in recent years, which is a shame given the heritage of the contest and the ideal timing midway between Royal Ascot and the Autumn. With Enable retiring, hopefully a new star can emerge to keep the race’s profile high.
July also sees the launch of the inaugural Racing League,a six-week competition in which 12 teams will contest 36 races, each worth £50,000, staged on Thursday nights and broadcast live by Sky Sports Racing. The prize money has lured many big hitters in the sport to give their support to this new venture. Each team will be made up of up to four trainers, three jockeys and 30 horses. The regionalisation of the teams, an overseas squad and the Irish runners supplied by Joseph and Donnacha O’Brien should encourage partisan support and a diverse feel to the competition.
With the backing of Sky, the marketing is certain to be high profile and whilst traditionalists will be always sceptical, this looks a concept that racing should get fully behind, as it seeks to broaden its appeal to the wider public.
The Racing League continues weekly into mid-August, a month that late developing and carefully nurtured two year olds are often seen on a racecourse for the first time.
It is likely to be the first occasion we see Tarnawa of Dermot Weld, who unleashed her for an autumn campaign last year which saw her rack up four victories, culminating in a brilliant win of the Breeder’s Cup Turf.
For many, the four day August festival at York is the highlight of the racing year. The opening day always sees a top quality Juddmonte International and the meeting culminates with the Ebor, the richest flat handicap in Britain, offering a lucrative prize pot usually in excess of £1 million. First run in 1943, the Ebor has long been the centrepiece of British staying which has seen the quality of the field increase incrementally tangentially to the value of the prize on offer. The race also attracts top quality hurdlers. Sadly Goshen did not make it to the start line this year, but Verdana Blue of Nicky Henderson ran an excellent race to finish third, when unfortunately ground conditions turned against her.
Regrettably the European Pattern is unable to avoid a clash between the St. Leger and the Irish Champions Stakes. On the 11th we are treated to the oldest of the Classics and often the best ten furlong race anywhere in Europe at Leopardstown. It would be great if a horse could arrive at Doncaster with a chance of the Triple Crown, not completed since Nijinsky in 1970.
During this month the pecking order of the two year olds begins to take more of a definitive shape. The last Saturday sees the Cambridgeshire handicap at Newmarket, preceded by the Royal Lodge, Cheveley Park and Middle Park Stakes.
The Cambridgeshire itself is one of the most competitive betting heats of the Flat season and is run over a rarely contested distance of 9 furlongs. One horse that could go well at the trip is Matthew Flinders, who put in some excellent performances last year. He was probably stretched by ten furlongs yet needed further than a mile. I would be interested if he turned up on the day off a workable mark.
A worrying concern for me is that the draw bias at Headquarters in relation to the nearside rail seems to be becoming even more pronounced. This needs to be addressed to maintain the appeal of The Rowley Mile.
Tarnawa easily won the Prix de L’Opera at Longchamp last season, a performance which was probably good enough to win the Arc De Triomphe. That will be the target this year. If she retains her form it will take a really good one to defeat her on the first Sunday of the month.
Two weeks later is Qipco Champions Day at Ascot. It is somewhat unfortunate that the prevailing weather and ground conditions tend to have a significant impact on the entire card for the Flat Season finale. The annual debate will no doubt be raised again as to whether such a prestigious fixture would be better staged at its’ traditional Newmarket venue, the headquarters for the sport. However whatever your position, Ascot is now fully established in the calendar for this meeting and will remain so.
Chepstow stages its’ traditional curtain raiser meeting to the National Hunt season on the second weekend of October. Backing Paul Nicholls’ runners blind should ensure a nice profit as he specifically targets this meeting to “hit the ground running.”
The Breeder’s Cup returns to San Diego’s iconic racing venue of Del Mar where the turf meets the surf. It is a long distance for the European horses to travel at the end of an arduous domestic campaign, maintain their form and perform to their maximum around the tight turns.
The first Tuesday sees the Melbourne Cup, where Joseph O’Brien has secured two victories in the space of four years. There will be a strong European contingent once again and no more deserving winner than Prince of Arran, who has been placed in each of the last three running’s.
Meanwhile domestically, if the usual heavy ground at Haydock prevails on Betfair Chase day, then Bristol De Mai is likely to rack up his fourth success in the race.
The National Hunt bandwagon rolls onto Kempton and Leopardstown at Christmas, taking in the Tingle Creek, the Cheltenham International Meeting and the Long Walk hurdle at Ascot on route.
It is an exciting time for the racing fan as the year draws to an end. The dark nights ensure early starts as the action comes thick and fast, keeping us warm and entertained throughout mid-winter.
We will no doubt be reflecting on what has gone before. New stars will have emerged; others we will have waved farewell to. Some reputations of the established will have been enhanced, others will have been tarnished. There will be triumph and misfortune; heart-warming tales and tragedies along the way. That is the compelling nature of horse racing, which fuels the passion of both participants and followers alike.
I for one will raise a glass this New Year to the hope that 12 months from now, the fortunes and health of the sport are on a distinctly upward curve.
Article written by – The Tote All Tipster
twitter – @TheTotalTipste2