Monday Musings: A Lull in the Programme

Knowing that this coming Saturday is something of a non-event racing-wise – unless you enjoy the concept of the Shergar Cup and the delights of Ascot in midsummer – I’ve tried to make some sense of the seven Flat-race meetings on offer around the country, writes Tony Stafford.

Trainers and owners have become frustrated by the continuing hot weather, many being unwilling to risk their valuable assets on unsuitably fast ground. Inevitably, though, the wait for appreciable rain to alter underfoot conditions will lead to massive entries for all categories of races when it finally arrives.

From north to south, handicaps are the staple offering. There’s nothing new in that, but of the 48 races scheduled this weekend, 37 are handicaps. Ascot’s six races with ten runners in each and two reserves are contested by 12 jockeys, three each representing teams of Ladies, Great Britain/ Ireland, Europe and the Rest of the World.

In general terms, its success depends on whether Frankie Dettori can be steered away from more meaningful mounts elsewhere. With only the Rose of Lancaster (Group 3) and a two-year-old Group 3 race at Newmarket domestically as competition, the now veteran’s love of the Royal racecourse will only be challenged realistically by Arlington Park, Chicago, where the Arlington Million is just one of four valuable races regularly targeted by European stables.

If you are thinking surely the jockeys booked for Ascot will have been revealed some time ago, you are probably right, and I’m sure the Editor – him of unbounded knowledge – knows the dozen names. But at 5 a.m. it’s not possible to quiz him.

But along with many other matters which previously would have been at one’s fingertips in an Internet search, Ascot racecourse, BBC weather and airline arrival times all seem to have disappeared under a cloak of commercial interest.

So sorry Ascot if you have had an expensive press conference to reveal the names which will no doubt include the happily back-in-action Hayley Turner, the other perennial crowd pleaser of Shergar Cup day, but I simply could not find any mention anywhere. [They’re here – Ed.]

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I do know that Rita Ora will be one of the post-racing attractions and the very much family-oriented crowd which as ever will pack the racecourse will have plenty to enjoy, especially as Ascot keeps its prices within reason. Plenty of owners would like to have a runner but the structure  – all six within the 0-95, 0-100 or 0-105 bands – will mean it will be hard to break past the Mark Johnston, Richard Fahey type of stables to be involved.

A few weeks back I was moved to write about the paucity of maiden as against novice races for two and three-year-olds. Of the 11 non-handicaps on Saturday, there are 2yo novice races at Ayr and Lingfield;  2yo maiden fillies’ races at Chelmsford and Newmarket, which also stages the Group 3 Sweet Solera, sponsored by the German breeding industry, and is for juvenile fillies.

The only other non-handicaps on offer are Haydock’s Rose of Lancaster, supported by the Listed Dick Hern Stakes, both for three-plus fillies and mares.  Lingfield offers in addition to its two-year-old race, two novice events, one a median auction for three-, four- and five-year-olds and the other for three and up. Then there is Redcar, where there is a median auction maiden for three and four year olds only, and, praise the lord, a juvenile seller, the sole race of that category on the entire day.

The fall from grace of selling and claiming races has been marked, given that traditionally that type of race proved a potential outlet for owners and trainers to move out horses that had lost their form or whose handicap ratings made it impossible for them to remain competitive.

Last Thursday, Stratford had a selling hurdle race and the Olly Murphy-trained Royal Plaza, rated 125, started 1-2 and won in a canter. At the subsequent auction, conducted by my old friend Capt Nick Lees, famous as the founder of Newmarket Nights, he went for £11,500, producing an £8,500 surplus to the advertised selling price of £3,000.

That was a benefit both to the course and the owner, although in the weighing-up nature of such events, the trainer was wondering whether he had done the right thing, suggesting there was probably some potential for Royal Plaza as a chaser.

The BHA has managed to list only eight selling races and no claimers – with one intriguing exception – among the 222 Flat races scheduled to be contested in the week starting today. Three, including Redcar, were for juveniles, and four of the other five are low-level handicaps with a ceiling of 0-60. One conditions seller is staged at Leicester where Capt Lees is a key member of the course board.

I did read a couple of weeks back that Jamie Osborne was very much in favour of a ground-breaking innovation on Chelmsford’s as ever well-endowed weekend fixture. The race, run over six furlongs is snappily called The Bet totequadpot at Optional Claiming Handicap, a Class 2 affair with £40,000 guaranteed and a winner’s prize of £25,876.

For a £200 entry, owners and trainers have the option of making their horse available for claiming, a practise in the United States, where top-class animals can be entered for an optional claimer, but usually as NOT made available for a claim where lesser animals are in for a claim.

The race is designed to attract decent animals, as the generous prize would suggest, but search as I have, I’ve been unable to find either in the relevant (July 12) issue of the Racing Calendar, or on the BHA’s Racing Administration site, what the advertised claiming prices should be if connections wish  to avail themselves of that option.

There is a note which states: “An allowance of weight may be claimed up to a maximum of 7lb, provided that the horse is claimable at the advertised claiming price. Any horse competing off a rating higher than 105 <see what I mean about the possible level of the race?> i.e. the horse’s official handicap rating minus the allowance of weight to be claimed, shall initially be treated as having that rating and the highest weight shall be 10st. Subsequently the excess over 105 in any rating shall be added to the weight allotted without limitation to the highest weight to be carried (Only one allowance may be claimed).” Are we still paying attention?

It probably would be easy enough if the buggers would tell us somewhere what the claimable prices are and indeed, why when mentioning the possible weight allowance, it states a maximum of 7lb rather than simply 7lb. Presumably it means the less money you put your horse in to be claimed for, the greater the allowance, So your 105 rated horse will get the maximum if you put him in to be claimed for 10k? BHA please clear it up for we dunderheads. [Details are here – Ed.]

One thing is certain, US racing revolves around and flourishes under claiming, rather than selling races, and the claims have to be made before the race. French racing also has a healthy number of claiming races and without them the highly-successful Stan Moore’s business model would be a lot less commercially viable.

Who doesn’t enjoy the post-race action of an auction, especially when somebody has had a bit of a touch and then has to try to keep the winner, having calculated how far he needs to go so as not to absorb the excess over the nominated sale price? The preponderance of handicaps and the sheer necessity of trainers’ having to conceal horses’ true ability in their early races, makes for an unsatisfactory structure.

More claimers and extra winners-of-one, two, three and even four races would lessen the need for the “three runs at the wrong trip” game played with such aplomb by a number of major trainers. Smaller stables simply do not have the resources to play that game, though they may try, but then it’s by no means a level playing field. Never was: never will be.

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