I CERTAINLY wasn’t the only one with my head in my hands listening to Nicky Henderson being interviewed on Sky Sports last Sunday.
Goaded into justifying his (perfectly legitimate) decision to take Constitution Hill out of the Coral Hurdle at Ascot last weekend, Henderson predictably took the bait and suggested that running the horse would have been ‘suicidal’ as he would have been left ‘wounded’ and that he ‘should be warned off’ if running given those considerations.
In a manner of speaking, it was justifiable for Matt Chapman to ask difficult questions, and it was understandable that Henderson should attempt to contextualise his decision to take out his star performer.
The problem lies with the fact that we all knew what would happen when those questions were asked. This wasn’t a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, but a calculatedly annoying force meeting an object itching to explode.
Nicky was bound to say something unguarded, and taken out of context his comments are damaging to the sport in that the inference is that running any horse at Ascot was dangerous, and therefore the fact that the meeting went ahead must have been a serious welfare concern.
The interview made for interesting viewing and may have been considered by Sky Sports insiders as a success, but racing doesn’t benefit from such controversy, and it’s really important that this topic of discussion – which is of genuine import – is treated very seriously.
Unfortunately, while there should be more education about what it was that led trainers to declare just 45 runners on good to soft ground, and then to withdraw a dozen of them on the day, the opportunity to provide that education has been stymied by an emotive debate which merely serves to further alienate the sport and its participants from its fans.
That is not to blame the trainers, of course. There was just enough feedback emanating from Ascot to suggest that there was genuine concern about the effect racing on Ascot’s surface was having on some of the participants on Friday and Saturday, and it seems the effect of recent rain on ground which has been short of the wet stuff for many months has led to ground which time purists will insist must be good to soft, while still firm enough underneath the top layer to leave some horses jarred up.
I’m largely an advocate of time-based going analysis, and it’s certainly true that you can’t run a fast ground time on slow turf, but there is more to ground conditions than placing a numerical value which evaluates resistance of horses running on it.
National Hunt horses racing on turf which has moisture in the top layer but not underneath, will not run as fast as they will when its firm all the way down, but they will still feel the unyielding base. Just think of Constitution Hill as the titular character from The Princess & The Pea and you’ll get the idea.
It’s clear that throwing millions of gallons of water at a track is not a perfect solution, and it’s unlikely that the unusual weather of 2022 will turn out to be that unusual in future.
As such, there must be a better solution to the racing programme than we currently have, and the obvious answer – that most tracks need considerably less racing and considerably more remedial work – raises the uncomfortable notion that we should be racing much less often on those tracks.
Sadly, the already bloated fixture list has become – if I may continue to peruse my extensive Hans Christian Anderson collection - the Emperor’s New Clothes.
We all know there are too many races, but we’re stuck in a death-spiral where the industry cannot survive without the fixtures, but is slowly being strangled by their effect, while we have to pretend it all looks lovely. Oh, for an impudent child!