2nd February 2018

Howzat! Ollie Stammers and Ravenhoe win on Ollie’s very first ride of his career. A perfect ride from an almost impossible draw.

Granted, the other jockeys did give him an easy time in front – more fool them – but he took every advantage he was handed. He got the horse out well, aimed for the entrance to the bend as instructed, and eased him into the lead. He then, smoothly, edged over to the rail when clear and kept a cool head all the way to the line without any hint of getting tired or losing his balance.

Ollie has only recently joined us straight from school having spent last summer holidays with us. He works his socks off every afternoon on the equiciser after riding four lots, and fully deserves this success.

5th January 2018

Happy New Year.

I had a quick look through old Bletherings (it didn’t take long) to see if I had commented when the BHA introduced its new threshold for percentage of non runners. I didn’t and I should have. I did make comment in my November Kingsley Klarion column and you can read that on this website if you wish.

I am, of course, totally against the ruling. If these non-runners are unfit to run, through disease, injury, or anything else affecting their wellbeing, then it most certainly is not in the interests of the sport, or anyone else for that matter, to put pressure on owners and trainers to run. If, as the BHA clearly suspects, a significant number of non-runners are actually fit to run, then the BHA should be asking themselves why an owner or trainer doesn’t want to run a perfectly fit horse when it is costing them so much to train it and running is surely its raison d’etre.

Today the Racing Post published the table of trainers who are falling outside the BHA’s threshold and Middleham handler, Ben Haslam, is in the unfortunate position of heading this particular trainers’ table. He rightly points out that nine months of the data is the same as that published when the ruling was introduced on 30th September and, with only 18 declarations in that period, he has had very little opportunity to get his percentage down and, unfortunately, he has had four non-runners from the 18. However, three of the four non-runners were withdrawn on veterinary advice and veterinary certificates were submitted for them. Furthermore, two of those three have not been fit to run since. Does anyone really think they should have run? Is the BHA questioning the validity of the veterinary certificates? I hope not.

Of the twenty trainers exceeding the threshold, now only one is a jump trainers. That, surely, shows us, as clear as day, that the increase in non-runners on the flat is entirely down to 48 hour declarations. Yet, just yesterday, Bruce Millington, editor of the Racing Post, was extolling the virtues of 48-hour declarations in his Racing Post column and calling for that system to be extended to Irish flat racing and British jump racing. It won’t happen, of course, because the BHA have learned their lesson from flat racing. They saw a 50% increase in non-runners immediately on the introduction of 48-hour declarations and they know that the increase would almost certainly be far greater for jumping.

18th December 2017

Great night, last night, entertaining a few of our owners at Olympia horse show. It really is great family entertainment and it is such a pity that it is no longer on terrestrial television.

Personally, I find it very hard to understand why show jumping  no longer has popular appeal as in the days of David Broom and Harvey Smith. No doubt, the experts at the Punter’s Post will say I am being naïve and that, without significant betting, there is no place for it amongst mainstream sports but I can’t really understand what went wrong. Maybe someone can enlighten me. It was prime-time TV when I was a kid.

 

16th December 2017

The Go Racing In Yorkshire annual awards lunch took place on Thursday at York racecourse and I was invited to attend together with nine of the longest standing and most senior members of my team.

As you can imagine, from the way that they approach the marketing of Yorkshire racecourses, Go Racing in Yorkshire know how to put on a good show and we were given great food, copious amounts of drink, and engaging interviews and entertainment during the awards.

I felt honoured and very grateful to be presented with their Outstanding Achievement award for training 4,000 winners and it was appropriate that it was presented to me by Norman Gundill of Pontefract Racecourse, where Dominating took us past that milestone. I can’t claim that the award was a surprise as Go Racing In Yorkshire’s General Manager, Emma White, couldn’t hide her enthusiasm when organising a full table for my team and kept telling me how much she hoped I would like the trophy. She was rightly proud of what she had done and I must say a special thank you to her for that trophy, the wonderful film that preceded the presentation of the award, and her hospitality on the day at the awards lunch and late into the ‘evening’ (I’m not sure what time it was when we piled back into our mini-bus) at the ‘after show’ party.

Two days before I attended a rather more formal Yorkshire racing do, the 247th Gimcrack dinner. Again the venue was Yorkshire’s flagship racecourse and, again, the catering was superb. The dinner is, of course, steeped in tradition although it is no longer an all male affair and the number of the fairer sex increases every year.

The winner of the race was Sands of Mali, owned by the Cool Silk Partnership, and so it was down to Peter Swann to propose the toast to British racing. The response was from Ed Chamberlin of ITV and his speech was, for the most part, music to my ears. The gist of his speech was that racing needs to engage with more people and it struck me that this was exactly what I said ITV should be aiming to do when they took over from Channel 4. The only difference was that my comments were taken by many in the media to be naive and anti-betting whereas his were just seen as a call for more media access. No doubt I said it all rather more bluntly.

He praised concerts at racecourses – something that I have generally been very much against – and said he saw them as a perfect opportunity to educate people about our sport. He is right, of course, but the problem has been that  the vast majority of racecourses have made no effort whatsoever to engage with that crowd. Only at Chelmsford have I seen any effort made to involve a concert crowd, and the performers, in the raceday. In most cases the concerts have done nothing but alienate existing customers and spoil the experience for them.

He described football, ‘apart from the offside rule’, as simple when compared to racing and said we need to do more to demystify the sport. But racing, too, is simple. In football there is a goal at each end and the aim of the game is obvious to anyone regardless of how much they happen to know about the intricacies of the rules. Racing is also a simple sport with a simple, single, objective of being first past the post. We complicate it unnecessarily, in particular with the handicap system. Why do we do it? What other professional sport doesn’t aim for a ‘level playing field’. I would say that the main aim of the handicap system is to increase the randomness of results and improve bookmakers margins but many punters and , in particular, members of the racing media claim that this enhances the ‘puzzle’ for them and encourages them to bet and to follow the sport. Maybe, but there is a much bigger potential audience out there who are bamboozled by this and cannot  have any serious opinion as a result. If it was simpler, more people would have their own opinions and many of them would have a bet, as they do on football. The constant thirst for ‘information for punters’ does nothing but complicate the sport and perpetuate the myth that it is all fixed and trainers and jockeys know the likely outcome before the start. Keep it simple, I do.

He described the opportunity to interview Jim Crowley at the start before the Nunthorpe as being akin to interviewing a footballer in the centre circle immediately before kick-off. ‘Brilliant’, so long as you don’t debase it by asking the the footballer if he is going to score or the jockey if he is going to win. Overall, as I say, it was music to my ears although I was not so sure about his enthusiasm for novelty races like the Shergar Cup.

Former England Hockey team goal keeper, Roger Dakin, then had us all splitting our sides with his self-deprecating tales.

A bumper Gimcrack dinner.

14th December 2017

Very many congratulations to the 50 people shortlisted for the 2018 Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards. These awards are yet another incredible initiative which, although run by the BHA in association with the Racing Post, would never have come into being without the inspiration and very significant financial support from Sheikh Mohammed. Our team have been winners and beneficiaries in the past and we are all most grateful for that recognition.

I am, of course, disappointed for the ten individuals (Ruth Burn – Newcomer; Aiden Smithies – Newcomer; Barry Lusted – Groom/Rider; Lauren Tindle – Groom /Rider; Becky Wright – Groom/Rider; Cesar Dayaca – Groom/Rider; Savroop Singh – Groom/Rider; Patrick Trainor – Groom/Rider; Mark Billingham – Dedication to Racing;  and Darren Forster- Dedication to Racing) nominated from our team this year as none of them have made the top ten in their category but I hope they understand that to be nominated by their peers is recognition in itself, particularly in such a strong team. Hopefully, some of them will get a chance again.

I should also, perhaps, make it clear that, although she once worked for us, I was not the nominator of Shannon Baines as suggested in the Racing Post this morning. She was, according to the BHA press release, nominated by Lucinda Egerton.

30th November 2017

Bruce Millington, editor of the Racing Post, doesn’t agree with  my opinions on any aspects of racing and he tells us today on page 100 of his publication that my viewpoint has ‘an uncanny knack of being the complete opposite’ of his. Should I be worried?

On top of that, there was someone, reported to work for Timeform, who went on Twitter after my appearance on Luck On Sunday last week and told the world (or that section of the world that follows him on Twitter) that he ‘found himself disagreeing with virtually every word’. And, of course, there was Graham Cunningham. Remember Graham Cunningham? I’m pretty sure he disagreed with everything I said about terrestrial TV coverage of racing.

But, back to Bruce Millington. The Englishman – I guess he’s an Englishman and he, very kindly, pointed out that I’m a Scot – recalls a conversation he had with me in Deauville. I don’t remember it at all and I can only take his word for the fact that I apparently ‘cited tennis as an example of a sport that did not need to be viewed through the prism of punting as much as racing is’. That, of course, is true but I think we can all be pretty certain that, if Bruce Millington and I were ‘jousting’ (his word, not mine) on the subject of sports coverage and betting, that I would first have cited football as the sport which is apparently one of the fastest growing sports betting mediums yet the extensive television coverage, at least, never mentions betting at all. Clearly, his memory isn’t any better than mine or is very selective.

24th September 2017 – Naas, Co. Kildare

I like to think I shoot straight from the hip and say it as it is but I have to admit that my assessment of the Keeneland sale was a bit wet when compared with James Delahooke’s. His letter to the Thoroughbred Daily News (see below) hit the nail on the head. I wish I’d written it.

‘The sad truth is’, he says, ‘ that nobody here wants your horses anymore’. Maybe a slight exaggeration but pretty much fact. James used to buy 15-20 yearlings at Keeneland, last year he bought one, this year none. I peaked at 20, last year I bought none, this year one.

‘They don’t trust your black-type, your under-raced stallions or your medication policies’, he said. I absolutely agree and I also fear that, with the vast majority of US sales yearlings having had some sort of surgical procedure or other significant interference, we can’t trust that they have had a proper upbringing with adequate time in the paddock.

When noticing a couple of symmetrical  scars on the fetlocks of a yearling last week, I asked the vendor if he’d had some surgery there. ‘No’, he said, ‘he just had a screw in as a baby’.They are so obsessed with presenting a ‘correct’ yearling with a ‘clean’ set of x rays that they have come to class anything short of invasive joint surgery as normal husbandry. It is a very sad state of affairs.

On one of my first visits to Keeneland I wrote for the Sporting Life that, ‘it is hard to tell which has had the most cosmetic surgery, the women or the yearlings’. I think the yearlings now have the edge.

 

WHOA.

I have resisted previous temptations to ally myself with WHOA (the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance) on the basis that, as a Brit, I have no business pontificating about U.S. drug policies.

Two recent events have decided me to strap on my guns and head into town to join the battle.

Firstly, I read with incredulity an advertisement in which one of your leading trainers enthusiastically endorsed a product specifically designed to speed recovery from pre-race medication.*

Then today, I read that a trainer filmed boasting about “juice” will be welcomed back at the same track next year.

As the cockney wide boys in London would say, they must be ‘aving a larf!

I have just returned from my 39th consecutive visit to Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale, where I regularly purchased 15-20 yearlings to race in England. Last year, I bought one, this year, none. In spite of Wesley Ward’s single-handed efforts to promote the American Thoroughbred, the sad truth is that nobody here wants your horses anymore.

They don’t trust your black-type, your under-raced stallions or your medication policies. There are plenty of good, young men and women in the breeding industry in the U.S. They need to strap on their guns and have a shootout with the complacent, laissez-faire politicians and racecourse managers. And your trainers who bleat that they cannot train without drugs, tell that to the Australians, the Japanese, and the Europeans who are all managing very well on hay, oats and water.

James Delahooke.

* This advertisement did not run in the TDN.

15th September 2017 – Bluegrass Airport, Lexington, Kentucky

It was great to be back in Keeneland after three or four years absence but I am far from sure that it was a commercially viable trip.

At one time I used to come here with three assistants and stay for over a week but, at peak, I bought twenty yearlings and they sold like hot cakes when I sent out the list to my owners. In more recent times the numbers bought declined well into single figures and some took months to find owners. Eventually, I decided it wasn’t worth coming and I have missed, at least, three years.

This time it was a low-key exercise compared with those days. I came on my own, travelling last Sunday, viewing in the mornings before the sale started, and returning today.

I bought just one yearling. She happens to be a full sister to the Queen Mary winner Acapulco and, like in the old days, she sold to Jaber Abdullah before I even had a chance to add her to my list of horses for sale. But, as we stand all the costs of coming to the sales and do not pass them onto the purchasers of the horses, it is hard to justify such a trip to buy just one horse.

Sadly, the factors that led to me deleting Keeneland from our round of yearlings sales, still exist. With the exception of Scat Daddy, War Front and Giant’s Causeway, whose progeny are generally very expensive, there are few stallions that would be known to my owners back home. Tapit is probably the most fashionable sire here at present and, dare I say, many of my owners have never heard of him.

When I was buying yearlings by the likes of Theatrical, Diesis, Seeking the Gold, Dynaformer, Rahy, Woodman, Trempolinio, Kris S, Dixieland Band, Gone West and occasionally pushing my boat right out to acquire the cheapest of Danzig’s or Storm Cat’s, my owners were fighting each other to get one.

Times have changed. To be blunt, I think we now have the best sires, especially for turf racing, in Europe and it may be that our stock now has the edge when it comes to soundness and durability.

I still love the place and I hope I  continue to come but it may be for bus man’s holidays rather than serious business trips.

 

5th September 2017

I can assure that my praise of Chelmsford’s prize-money in the Kingsley Klarion was written before I attended on Saturday evening and won the two richest (£80,000 and £50,000) races. In fact, when I arrived direct from Germany where I had been at the Baden Baden sale, early, in the hope of watching my runners from other tracks, and discovered that there was a Boyzone concert after racing, I was planning to retract everything good I had said about the place.

I had been at Windsor the previous Saturday for their biggest race-day of the year and they also had Boyzone playing. It was a shambles and it confirmed everything I have come to believe about the folly of combining racing and concerts. The place was packed with people who had come to watch Boyzone and get drunk. The vast majority were showing no interest whatsoever in the racing and, as they had their bottles and glasses perched on every inch of the stands that their bodies weren’t occupying, there was no possibility of watching a race live. I had come from Goodwood and the car which had dropped me off could not get back in to pick me up as the security personnel are so obsessed with the idea that people are trying to gate-crash their concert. As with every other racecourse concert I have had the misfortune to attend, I could not see that this was doing anything for racing at all.

So, when I arrived at Chelmsford I thought I was in for a dose of the same and I wasn’t best pleased but, as concerts combined with racing go, this was the best organised that I have seen. The owners and trainers had been moved to a non-viewing tent but, at Chelmsford, that isn’t a great hardship as most places are non-viewing and every member of staff I came into contact with, from the time I arrived until I left, apologised for the inconvenience. The main stand was out of bounds to those that had come principally for the music and it was easy to move back and forward between it and the parade ring. There was no shortage of space in front of the big screen at the winning post.

It certainly helped that they have Derek Thompson. He can entertain any crowd and get them involved. They don’t just sit around, drink, and wait for the music to start when Tommo’s on the mike. He introduced the ‘kiss cam’, where couples are expected to kiss if the camera is focused on them. I have only previously seen that at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, where there is non-stop entertainment throughout the night, and it drew a few funny looks when I tried to suggest it to the Hamilton Park board. It worked at Chelmsford and, in between kissing and being interviewed by Tommo about their reasons for being at Chelmsford that night, the crowd were fed horseracing and Tommo’s commentary on trainers, jockeys, horses and all things racing. I would like to have seen them fed even more horseracing, from other tracks, but, as I’ve said, as these events go, this was the best.

To cap it all, they had the band come out to present the trophy for the big race and, of course, the crowd were five deep round the winners enclosure to see them rather than sitting on a step somewhere drinking. It is something that I have been saying for years. Any artist employed to play on a racecourse, in an event combined with racing, should be obliged to take part in the proceedings of the race meeting. If they won’t do that, their concert should stand alone. Don’t tell us that concerts bring a new audience to racing when the vast majority don’t see a horse and those that came to see racing are charged extra and denied the opportunity to watch racing in comfort.

There is much, much more that could be done, beyond what I saw at Chelmsford, but at least they were making an effort. I haven’t seen that on any other course.

13th August 2017

You know me, if someone says something I don’t agree with, I’m usually telling them so or putting pen to paper before they can get the last word out. So it is very out of character for me to reflect and consider my response for so long when somebody has upset me as much as I have been upset by those who made negative comments about me and Charlie, on social media, after Permian was killed last night.

I think ‘stunned’ is the best word to describe the way I felt when I realised that he had broken his leg and would not survive. Watching the race on television we could see that he was, as Charlie later said, running ‘a very disappointing race’ but there was no sign of anything untoward or indication that something was wrong. He went out of the picture before reaching the line and I got up and walked away without any thought that he might be injured.

Injuries are part and parcel of competitive sport, whether the participants are human or equine, and, of course, they are also part and parcel of life, particularly for animals whether they are racing or running loose in a field. I, having worked with horses for over thirty years, first as a practising veterinary surgeon and then as trainer, have seen more than most people and I have seen injuries from minor grazes to catastrophic fractures. Some horses, like some people, seem prone to injury and sometimes it is not coincidence that the same horse is injured again and again. People are quick to say of such horses that they have a ‘weak constitution’ or must have poor conformation but that isn’t necessarily the case: often it is the period of rest when recovering from one injury that makes the horse particularly at risk of another. Bone density and strength is lost rapidly during periods of rest or inactivity.

It is the horse that never needs a lay off that is least at risk of injury. Permian was such a horse. He never had to miss a day’s exercise due to lameness. He was always sound and didn’t even show any sign of stiffness or pain in our routine, post race, inspections. That is why the news that he had suffered a catastrophic fracture was such a shock to us all. It is a horrendous blow to a racing yard to lose its best horse but it was particularly bad because we were so unprepared for it. We never thought it would happen to him. We were already making plans for next year.

The phone was ringing before I had walked from my seat by the television to the door of the room and it was Charlie who said, ‘he’ll have to be put down, it’s not even a grey area’. He has been horribly misquoted by the media and others as saying ‘I had thirty seconds with him’, when the fact was that he was with him ‘in thirty seconds’ from the realisation that he had broken his leg. I believe that Charlie and Permian’s groom, Gavin Hardisty, were first to the horse and Frankie Dettori dismounted and went to the aid of William Buick. It was Charlie who made the decision that the horse must be euthanased there and then on the track rather than removed in an ambulance as some might have preferred. It was the right decision.

It never ceases to amaze me that animals, and particularly horses, can suffer horrendous injuries and show little or no sign of being in pain. The effect of endorphins and adrenalin on the flight animal – nature’s survival mechanism – is verging on miraculous but it doesn’t last long and Charlie did exactly as I would have done in ensuring that the horse was spared any suffering. A good decision.

The messages of condolence were rolling in by e mail, on Facebook, and on Twitter within minutes of the horse’s death and I can assure you that they are all greatly received. Sadly, in reading them, I couldn’t help but see the others from a minority who sought to blame me for the horse’s demise and accuse Charlie of callousness because he, to my mind, acted practically in the horse’s best interests rather than concern himself with the public perception of the event.

The number of negative comments was in single figures, amongst hundreds of genuine condolences, but they hurt nonetheless and not because there was any truth in them. I find it sad that people jump to the conclusion that an accident like this happens because of one too many runs. We all know that there is a risk of injury if you run and, if you run very fast the risk is increased. But we do not know that the risk on the eighth start is any greater than the risk on the first. It might even be that the risk is less if you go fast more often than it is if you have long gaps between racing. Some scientists are now suggesting that, to minimise the risk of injury, we should be working horses at maximum pace over a short distance every other day.

It is a very interesting subject and one that occupies a huge amount of my time but, frankly, I can do without the advice from those that know nothing about it and only put their brain into gear ten minutes after their lips start moving.

And, as to the one person who sought to blame William Buick because ‘surely he should have known something was wrong’, I wonder if he would keep going if he thought it likely that he was about to be catapulted into the ground from a horse travelling in excess of 30mph.

I have no complaints about anyone’s actions. I would employ the same team tomorrow in the full knowledge that nobody could do a better job.

7th July 2017

Has the time come for racing to drop the Racing Post? If the public perception of the sport is really so crucial to its future – and I agree that it is – how long can we continue to ally ourselves to a newspaper that regularly presents a negative opinion of the sport and the industry behind it?

Today’s Racing Post was another howler. In the Friday column, on page six, Tom Kerr assured us that he has ‘no personal desire to see the whip banned’. He told us that he does not believe it is cruel and he does not believe that there is an urgent welfare reason for it to be banned.

Eh? The front page of the paper was dedicated to his column and advertised it under the heading ‘Why Racing Must Ban The Whip’ on a background of jockeys, with sticks raised, under a black, cloudy, sky.

He quoted Mark Twain who said, ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’. Certainly it can, especially if you dress it up with emotive headlines and photographs and put it on the front page of a newspaper.

He pretends to be a supporter of racing and claims that he wants to see racing flourish. He wants us to believe that he wrote this column to warn us of impending danger if we do not accept his views but only an idiot could believe that this article or, in particular, the front page of the paper it was in did anything but harm to the sport of horseracing.

I have just a hint of sympathy for him because he refers to this perception of a cruel sport and says that he believes it to be fundamentally wrong. If that is true then he has been used and manipulated by his editor and those that wrote the headlines, to some extent, but my sympathy is short lived as his writing is dotted with unnecessary emotive embellishments that show his true colours.
He concludes with questions and says, ‘I ask only this: what would really happen if the whip was banned as a coercive tool? Would the sport suffer? Would the spectacle be diminished if a thrilling finish was fought not with whips slapping into the flanks of tired horses, but with hands and heels, nothing but man and horse united?’

I’ll answer, firstly, with a question of my own. Would the horses be less tired? Or did he just slot that word, tired, in to reinforce the suggestion that there is some abuse involved?

I’d say they might be more tired or, at least, more subject to the effect of fatigue. Three hundred plus years of selective breeding have honed the flight response to a quite incredible degree in the thoroughbred horse but that flight response still needs to be initiated. Contrary to what some ignorant people think [Deirdre doesn’t like me using the word ‘ignorant’ and she feels it is too antagonistic, but it is, without doubt, the correct word in this context] – and it seems Tom Kerr is one of them – horses will not race for the honour of winning, the trophy, the pat on the neck, or the extra bowl of oats. They simply do not have the means to understand that however much we want to feel that they know when they have won. They do not.

Dogs might be trained to run for a chocolate drop and a fussing from their owner but they would never run as fast as greyhounds in which the natural instinct to chase prey has been selected for. And horses just wouldn’t do it at all.

Racing would not be ‘just fine’ and the thoroughbred breed would steadily diminish. Genetic selection is a harsh process. It is based on the principles of survival. Frederico Tesio famously said, ‘the thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby’. He, perhaps, omitted to mention the piece of wood that initiated the flight response and ensured that the horses pushed themselves to their limits.

The word ‘coercion’, as used by Tom Kerr, is an emotive one in this context but let’s be realistic about it, horses will not run their hearts out for reward. Don’t listen to people who tell you nothing would change. They, quite simply, don’t know what they are talking about.

16th June 2017

I posted a link to the Blethering below on our Facebook page and, to my surprise, it has attracted nearly 13,000 views and many “likes” and “shares”. In addition I have received countless e mails on the subject.

One this morning came from a Nick Bennett of ‘Nick Bennett Racing’. Not racehorses but speedway and Nick points out that they have had a similar system in speedway for years with a cord attached to the rider’s wrist to cut the engine if he falls off, preventing a bike with open throttle careering into the crowd. It is obvious really and should be with a blindfold on a horse too.

13th June 2017

I was sorry to hear that Just Marion, the horse that unshipped its apprentice rider coming out of the stalls at Brighton yesterday and raced blindfolded before crashing through rails, has had to be put down.

The trainer, Clare Ellam, was apparently deeply upset and described the injuries as the worst she had seen in 25 years working with horses. She did not see exactly what happened, she has requested footage from the BHA to get clarification, and she wishes to discuss ways to prevent anything similar from happening again.
I can tell her, and the BHA, that there is a way to prevent it from happening but, when I previously suggested it to the PJA and the BHA, there was no interest in my idea.

I have seen, at least, two previous incidents of horses running loose blindfolded. One was at a Point to Point and the horse got into the car park and collided with several cars; the other, if I remember rightly, was at Doncaster and I think the horse was trained by Mary Reveley.

I don’t want to see it happen again so I came up with the simple idea of a cord from the blind fold to a Velcro strap which fits around the rider’s wrist before the blindfold is put on the horse. If the rider comes off the horse, the blindfold comes too. Once in the starting stalls, the rider transfers the strap to the superstructure of the stalls. Now, if the rider fails to pull the blindfold off when the stalls open, the horse will leave it behind attached to the stalls.

We introduced it at Kingsley Park and now always have it in place when a blindfold is used during stalls practice. Apart from preventing a horrendous accident like the one that occurred yesterday, it means that the rider can concentrate on staying on if the horse rears or becomes fractious with the blindfold on, rather than snatching for the blindfold. You see that situation regularly on our racecourses.

This also, perhaps, should focus attention on the common practice of pulling the blindfold off just as the gates open. I hate to see it as the horse almost invariably misses the break (you have added the jockey’s reaction time to that of the horse) and I think, if it is necessary to leave the blindfold on so long, we really need to do more work with that horse at home. It also begs the question of whether a horse that needs a blindfold on until the gates open should be ridden by an apprentice.

4th June 2017

I was shocked and saddened to hear today that Dandy Nicholls has died.

I can’t actually remember if Dandy ever rode for me but it was certainly only after he retired from the saddle and started training that I got to know him. Unfortunately, I never visited his yard to actually see how he did it and he told me that his methods weren’t quite as unorthodox as everyone believed but they were certainly effective. I imagine that many of the ideas came from David Chapman and it is great to see that that legacy is being carried on by Ruth Carr.

I have always said that, if you send me a horse which is bred to go a mile, I’ll stretch it out to get a mile and a quarter. But, if you sent the same horse to Dandy Nicholls, he would take it back to six furlongs. He did it very successfully several times, most notably with Regal Parade.

We trainers never like it if someone gets a horse from us and improves it, and I like to think that it doesn’t happen too often to me, but it didn’t hurt quite so much when it was Dandy. He would ask me to recommend horses that he should buy out of my yard and he clearly trusted me to be honest with him. I respected that and wished him well with them, even when he took Regal Parade from decent handicapper to Group 1 winner.

The racing world is certainly less colourful without him.

24th May 2017

If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake. Today, mixing of the latest recipe MJR all-weather surface began. Various recipes were trialled on lunge rings and now a furlong of this material will be put down where we can canter over it and work it with our normal gallop maintenance equipment. Having complete control of the manufacturing process will allow us to make any necessary adjustments and we expect that, by the time we go over to using this on our main gallop, we should have it exactly to our liking. Take a look at my video clip.

Mixing of the new MJR All Weather surface

Mark Johnston Racing 发布于 2017年5月24日

6th May 2017

I must stress that I have great sympathy for clerks of courses who are over-watering and wrongly describing the going in order to avoid any chance of the ground going to firm and owners and trainers withdrawing their horses. It is pretty much universally accepted that good-firm is the optimum condition of turf for flat racing and the BHA instruct clerks to aim for good-firm ground. But the fact is that most of them aim for softer.

Today the forecast ground for Ayr on Monday was changed from Good-Firm to Good-Firm: Good in places. I phoned the course, asked if it had rained, and was told that there has been no rain for fourteen days. I then asked what they expected the ground to be come Monday and they said, ‘we are watering now to maintain it as it is now’. I pointed out that they are supposed to be aiming for Good-Firm but the clerk said that he was aiming to keep it as it is now, Good-Firm: Good in placed.

Well, at least he is honest but he isn’t following BHA instructions and I do wonder whether he, like many others, is even aware of the instruction.

There should be a complete review of the way going is described and what they are allowed to do with watering to alter it.

1st May 2017

I’m not dead. Although, if Bletherings is your only contact with me, then you could be forgiven for thinking that I was.

I have simply been very busy and, for some reason, nothing has driven me to blether. Until now.

Tomorrow there are five flat meetings in Britain. 35 individual races of which 12 needed to be re-opened due to insufficient declarations.

It is notable that the two most valuable races on the day, a £15,500 handicap at Brighton and a £15,000 handicap at Nottingham, both restricted to fillies and both for horses rated 71-90, attracted just six runners each. This will lead to some claiming that prize-money (not that £15,500 is big money for horses of this calibre) doesn’t attract runners but the simple truth is that there is too much racing for the available horse population, at all levels. There are handicaps for horses rated under 75 on the day which have also failed to attract more than six runners.

If we keep spreading the jam thinner and thinner we are going to continue to lose owners and we are going to continue to lose good horses to other countries where they can earn far more than they do here. With so much racing and the betting industry’s measure of success being field size, my fear is that the racecourses keep putting on lower and lower grade races in search of that larger population of moderate horses and our racing continues to decline.

2nd February 2017

With so many supporting the reduction in distance of the Queen’s Vase, I must admit that I was beginning to wonder if I was overreacting. Son Charlie then pointed out to me that this will now mean that Royal Ascot will have Group 2 races, restricted to three-year-olds, at 10, 12 and 14 furlongs. The Queen’s Vase of old, at two miles, was surely a much more realistic race for the true stayer.

1st February 2017

The Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot, having only recently been downgraded from Group 3 to Listed, has now leapfrogged up to Group 2 ‘as part of British racing’s long-term plan to safeguard the staying breed’. That has to be good news. But, at the same time, the distance of the race has been reduced from 2 miles to 14 furlongs. Eh? What is that move doing for the staying breed?

Is 14 furlongs a ‘staying’ race? I know some will say it is and I well remember that, back in 1995, Double Trigger missed out on being crowned Champion Stayer despite having won all five Cup races that year because Strategic Choice earned a higher rating for his third place in the 12 furlong King George and was deemed to be a stayer because he had run in that year’s Irish St. Leger over 14 furlongs. But that couldn’t happen now and, even then, surely most of us would have accepted 14 furlongs as being a Classic distance – the distance of the St. Leger.
The Queen’s Vase has always been, for me, the first big test of the true three-year-old stayers. A true trial for Cup horses of the future. That said, in the last twenty years, only three Ascot Gold Cup winners had run in the Queen’s Vase. I’m not sure if that makes it a good trial or not but those three were Leading Light and Estimate, who had both won the Vase, and Mr Dinos, who had finished second.

Would Leading Light and Estimate have won the Queen’s Vase over 14 furlongs? Maybe, but we can’t be sure.

I am a huge supporter of the principles behind the initiative to promote the breeding and racing of stayers in Britain but I have some grave reservations about some of the methods being employed. Our Kingsley Klarion went to press just before this change was announced today but in it I have queried other parts of this initiative which involve the programming of two-year-old maiden races over 7 and 8 furlongs for horses whose sire won over a minimum of nine and a half furlongs.

To my mind it is quite simple, if you want to promote the breeding and racing of stayers, you improve opportunities and/or prize-money for stayers. You don’t do it by putting meaningless restrictions on 7 furlong maidens and you don’t do it by reducing distances of the best stamina tests.

26th December 2016

Raye Wilkinson, welfare officer at Mark Johnston Racing, e mailed me three days ago and said, “I hope you realise that you have let your million readers down – no Bletherings for 2 months”.

A slight exaggeration, I think. Maybe five zeros too many there but he has a good point all the same.

I always seem to find some excuse not to do it and, most recently, I have been telling myself that I must save all interesting topics for the Kingsley Klarion as I am constantly under pressure from Mikaelle Lebretton to provide 1,500 words for that publication each month. But, believe it or not, I have already completed my rant for the January issue and I have several bees left on my bonnet that probably shouldn’t wait until February. So Raye and his friend, my other reader, are going to get their wish. Here goes.

It does, indeed, seem to be just over a month since I last blethered about the retirement of The Last Lion and, scanning down this page, you will see that it was a month before that when I wrote about jockeys’ weights. That piece was itself a follow up to an earlier Kingsley Klarion article and on both occasions I gave numerous examples where races were being run with reduced top weights when compared to the old scale of 9st 7lbs for 2yo’s, 9st 10lbs for 3yo’s, and 10st for older horses.

I laid the blame for the mess firmly at the feet of the racecourses who had been given the power to set their own top weights and, under pressure from the Professional Jockeys Association at the time, agreed to reduce top weights to ‘provide opportunities for lightweight jockeys’.

However, I recently discovered, at a Hamilton Park board meeting, that the power to set top weights has been returned to the BHA. I was suggesting that Hamilton Park could steal a march on other tracks by getting its top weights back to the old maximums. They would make it easier for all jockeys, provide more opportunities for those struggling with their weight and, hopefully, as a result, would attract more and better jockeys to ride at Hamilton. But, Racing Manager, Sulekha Varma put me right and explained that courses no longer have the power to alter the top weights in races and those races where the weights were reduced are now stuck there until the BHA does something about it.

So, why aren’t they doing it? It makes no sense. They are commissioning studies and entering into lengthy debates about the welfare of jockeys and horses but they are taking no action. Can’t someone make the decision to get on with it and return the top weights to the old maximums. They might find that they alleviate the problem and that there is no call for them to spend fortunes on further study and debate.

21st October 2016

It is with mixed feelings that we say goodbye today to The Last Lion who is off to begin what I am sure will be a very successful career at stud. Of course, as a trainer, I would have loved to have him next year and to see what he might do stepped up to a mile or in the top sprint races against his elders. I had every confidence that he would have trained on and done well but, at the same time, I am delighted for his owners and for the horse himself that he has done so well in such a very short space of time and that he is already in such demand for stud purposes.

He will surely go down in history as one of the best and toughest horses I ever trained. We started him way back at the beginning of April when he won the Brocklesby on very soft ground at Doncaster and he finished off at the end of September winning the Group 1 Middle Park on Good-Firm ground at Newmarket. In between he ran a further eight times on all types of ground and tracks and was never unplaced. He ran uphill, downhill, round a bend and even on the all-weather. To The Last Lion, it was all the same.

Looking back at his training records I see that, from that first day at Doncaster until today when he steps on that horsebox, he has never had more than two consecutive days without a rider on his back. He is the type of horse that every owner and trainers dreams of. He truly is a ‘lion’ of a horse but I hope he is not the last. I am looking forward to training his progeny and I dearly hope there are many just like him.

20th September 2016

To follow on from my Kingsley Klarion piece this month on the subject of jockeys’ weights (see Klarion, Straight Talking, September 2016), it is worth taking a look at a few of the weights on Thursday this week. With the dividing of races at Pontefract and Chelmsford resulting in a later finish at one and an earlier start at the other, we found ourselves struggling to find jockeys for our runners at Chelmsford. As I struggled to find a jockey to do 8st 9lbs on one runner, I was drawn to have a look at the top weights in the various races at the Essex track.

The first race, for 2yo fillies, has a top weight of 8st 11lbs – why not 9st, or even 9st 7lbs? The second race, a handicap for 2yo’s has a top weight of 9st 7lbs which makes reasonable sense and fits with the old rules but it does make me wonder why the top weight in the fillies race has to carry 10lbs less. The third race, a handicap for 3yo’s, has a top weight of 9st 7lbs, the same as the 2yo’s – why not 9st 10lbs? The fourth race is a handicap for 3yo’s and upwards and the 4yo top weight again carries 9st 7lbs – why not 10st? The fifth race is again a handicap for 3yo’s and upwards but this time, thanks to a 6lb penalty, the top weight carries 10st 1lb but the next horse carries 9st 12lbs – where did that idea come from? The sixth race is yet another handicap for 3yo’s and upwards but this time the top weight carries 9st 10lbs – yet another variation. The seventh race is the most confusing of all because it is the second division of the sixth race but, this time, the top weight, which is also a 4yo, carries 3lbs less than in the other division. The last race is a maiden for 3yo’s and upwards and this time the 4yo top weight carries 9st 11lbs. It seems they make it up as they go along.

The weights at Newmarket, where the 10yo top weight in one handicap carries 9st 7lbs, and Pontefract are just as ridiculous. The BHA should sort this mess out immediately, if for no other reason than to bring some logic to the issue, and should then consider whether a raising of the minimums is necessary. Probably not.

8th September 2016

According to Lewis Porteous in today’s Racing Post, the BHA’s latest selection of ‘eyecatching’ racing silks which are up for auction, will give owners a chance to stand out from their peers. Well, maybe – if they wear them themselves.

If, on the other hand, they want to be able to spot their horse mid race – and, as far as I am concerned, that is the whole purpose of jockeys wearing colours – these silks are not fit for purpose.

Some are like camouflage and others are single colours with a motif (an anchor or a horseshoe) on the chest where it will be invisible once the jockey is in the racing position. No doubt those single colours (e.g. purple), without the motifs, have already been sold by the BHA to some other unsuspecting owner.

26th August 2016

An odds on favourite gets beaten and the internet trolls crawl out from under their piles of losing betting slips. The latest one calls himself Simon Street and comes, to me at least, from the highly unoriginal e mail address of ‘alwayscheatings@gmail.com’.

This evening’s offering read simply ‘Sofia’s Rock – Always cheating at it’s best Mark!’ (please note the grammatical error is his, not mine).

Interestingly, I have heard from him before. Most recently he e mailed me regarding my views on betting coverage on terrestrial television. Thankfully, he was one of the few that did not agree with me. He, like so many others, fails to see that he is one of the victims of the culture which leads punters to believe that finding winners is all about tips and inside information. I know it is difficult for most of us to conceive such ignorance but these people really believe that trainers know what is going to win the race and that beaten favourites are planned and are part of our conspiracy against punters.

His e mail address is clearly created as part of his attempt to remain anonymous but the name, Simon Street, may be real or, at least, one he uses regularly to send his abusive mail. A Simon Street recently bombarded jockey Sean Levey with abusive tweets from the twitter handle @SimonStreet9 after Promising was a beaten favourite at Newbury on August 13th. The same person tweeted that trainer John Butler was a ‘dirty cheat’ on August 19th. Presumably he backed the favourite when Butler’s horse won at Wolverhampton that day.

If the name is real, you may know him and, if so, I would urge you to expose him. I have had it suggested to me in the past that these people are to be pitied rather than exposed and that they require to remain anonymous due to their own vulnerability. It was suggested that, in exposing them, I was the bully but I don’t hold with that theory. I can cope with all the abusive mail I get, although I have to admit that it is an unpleasant side of the job, but I am very aware that such abusive e mail, tweets and texts can have very serious consequences and I think they should be stamped out wherever possible.

17th August 2016

The Dikler, whoever he she or it is, is just like some other Racing Post scribes in liking to write about, but not listen to, what I have said. Did I deny that bands and music bring large numbers of people into racecourses? Of course I didn’t. Jess Glynne would probably fill Glasgow Green, never mind Newmarket and Market Rasen racecourses.

What I said was that the vast majority of those that go to racecourses to listen to music have no interest whatsoever in the racing and will not be introduced to racing by their visit to Newmarket or Market Rasen to listen to Jess Glynne. And I’ll add now that they are spoiling the racecourse experience for many of those that do go to racecourses to watch horseracing.
If courses are going to have these artists playing alongside racing then every effort should be made to engage the crowd in racing. Jess Glynne should not get the gig unless she is willing to participate in the day’s racing – presenting prizes, judging best turned out, doing interviews, etc. – and, if she won’t do it, find someone else or put the concert on when there is no racing.

The Dikler, apparently, is heading to Newmarket to see Little Mix. Well, he better remember to take his press badge as, last Friday, staff bringing horses for the last race, some with a horse in one hand, were denied access because they didn’t have their stable passes with them. The lady on the gate feared that they were trying to sneak in to see Jess Glynne without paying.

15th August 2016

Our in-house photographer, Mikaelle Lebreton, passed me these shots taken at Catterick on Friday evening with her comment attached. I cannot but agree with her.

I didn’t look at the official going at the track, but on the Racing Post website, it says the ground at Catterick was “Good” on Friday. Looking at these shots, I am not sure that was quite the case!

3rd August 2016

Letters and e mails of support for my views, as expressed on The Morning Line, continue to pour in. I realise that those sent to me may not be an entirely representative sample but it is gratifying nonetheless and clearly shows that I am not expressing such a minority view after all.

One e mail which arrived this morning was particularly interesting. It came from an Alexander Frew and he was prompted to write to me after reading my latest Bletherings.
Mr. Frew had already written to Channel 4 to complain about Graham Cunningham’s part in the show and Channel 4 had replied to him. Kelsey Quinn of Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries replied and said, “May we assure that Mark Johnston accepted the invitation to join The Morning Line and was fully aware of the panel and intended questions.”

Well, I can assure Kelsey Quinn and you that I had no knowledge of who would be on the panel until I arrived on set fifteen minutes after the show had started and saw them for myself. At no time was I given any prior notice of the questions that would be asked.

I have no complaint about that but I do think that, if they had plans to ask specific questions, sharing them with me in advance would have allowed an opportunity to make considered replies and make much better use of the limited time available.

1st August 2016

The response to my appearance on the morning line has been quite astonishing. We have been flooded by e mails and letters of support for my views. A selection have been printed in this month’s Klarion but we do intend to put more of them on the website in due course.

To be fair, there were a couple – well, one and a half really – in support of Graham Cunningham’s position and I have to accept that people who agree with him might be less inclined to write to me but past experience suggests that critics aren’t slow to come forward so I have to conclude that there is widespread support for my views.

For me, it was a very unsatisfactory debate. I’m a big boy – too big by half – and I can cope with interruptions and attempts to mock but it is a serious subject and it would have been good to get into the detail.

Some say that I was ambushed. I don’t particularly feel that but clearly they had a preset agenda and prepared questions which I had no prior knowledge of. That was obviously going to put me at a disadvantage – I didn’t have any quips about string vests or dancing and sex at the ready – but I could still have answered his questions if given a chance to do so.
Surely we should really have started with a discussion on why, if the current programme content and the emphasis on betting is acceptable or preferable, as Graham Cunningham would have it, they have lost viewers, lost the contract and why most of them are fighting for a job. I shouldn’t need to tell them that something is wrong. And Graham Cunningham, if he is looking for a position in the ITV team, might be better trying to think of what he could do differently to attract more viewers rather than trying to defend the same old failing format.
Graham Cunningham asked me, ‘What would you do to engage 10 year old, 12 year old, children with a programme about horseracing? Just give me a couple of concrete ideas.’ And added, somewhat condescendingly I thought, ‘You’ve obviously thought about this’. I replied that I had thought about it but, in truth, I was unprepared for the question and didn’t think to query how he thought we could engage them with a programme about betting. Off air we discussed how all of us there had become interested in horseracing and most, if not all, had first become hooked in their pre-teen years. Of course it wasn’t betting that lured us in. I am surprised that the betting industry don’t seem to consider that or maybe they know it but would rather lure new customers into sports or betting opportunities that are cheaper and/or more profitable for them.

I could have gone on for hours on ideas to make coverage of racing more interesting to a wider audience, on how to simplify it, and on how to educate people about it. I built my business on an almost daily diet of new ideas. Most, of course, are rejected long before they are put into practice. Many are tried and fail, and it is very important to recognise that they are failing, but the regular supply of new ideas ensures that we don’t stand still. If I ran a television company covering horseracing, or a bookmaker, I’d have the same approach.

13th July 2016

I can’t be held responsible for people disagreeing with what I didn’t say.

Nor should I lose any sleep about being ‘drowned out by a cacophony of dissenting voices’ especially if, as the Racing Post says, much of it was on social media. Most of those people, by definition, don’t read or write more than 140 characters.

Hopefully, there are some thinkers in all three industries – racing, betting and media – who might just take a minute to consider what I did actually say about the TV coverage of racing and look at the potential benefits to all of bringing a wider audience to our sport and, above all, educating them about it and cultivating their interest to a point where they might have their own opinions.

That doesn’t simply mean that we should have TV coverage dominated by behind-the-scenes features – although they are clearly popular and do reach out to a wider audience. We must promote a greater understanding of the sport.

Our media coverage screams out that, ‘if you don’t bet, this is not for you’ and, from what I can see, that cacophony of voices that the Racing Post are referring to is saying exactly the same thing. How clever is that?

12th July 2016

Touché Mr. Carr. Yesterday, at the Go Racing In Yorkshire Summer Festival Press Day, I told David Carr that the front page of the Racing Post usually looks like a bookmaker’s advert and today he has managed to persuade them to put me on it under the controversial heading ‘Johnston’s message for ITV: drop all betting talk’. What’s more, apart from a small banner advert for Coral, the front page has no mention of betting at all and headlines draw attention to six interesting articles inside. Have I been doing the Racing Post an injustice? Judged on today’s content, I have.

When you have a press day like that and you are fielding questions from a dozen journalists on topics ranging from Brexit to the price of eggs, it is difficult to cover every topic in detail and the opportunities to be misquoted are numerous. David Carr’s coverage of what I said was, however, very fair although he did, perhaps, put too much emphasis on my plea for the media to give less coverage to betting and nowhere near enough on my assertion that they should concentrate on promoting understanding of, and interest in, the sport. If people have an opinion they are much more likely to bet as is evident from sports like football.

The issue drew comment from the editor, Bruce Millington, and he is of course right to say that ‘betting is far more fundamental to racing’s funding model than it is to other sports’. But I am not for a moment suggesting that people should not be allowed to bet and his suggestion that we should look to showjumping for an indication of how racing might be without betting is a ridiculous one. Far more important to look to greyhound racing for what can happen to a sport that becomes nothing more than a betting medium and is reduced to a game of numbers and colours. Let’s not allow racing to go any further down that path.

6th July 2016

We are mid season and there should be more for me to blether about now than at any other time of the year but I am, quite simply, too busy and/or just not disciplined enough.
It has taken my old friends at York racecourse to move me to write something. If you live in the North of England I think you will be as astounded as I am to hear that they are watering again. It has hardly stopped raining all year and they put 2mm of water on last night.

To my mind – and I am sure they will say that my mind is of no consequence as I am neither a gardener nor a groundsman – 2mm does nothing but damage. What is their aim in constantly trickling water on to the track? It is inconceivable to me that a racetrack should need watering in this wettest of years and I find it hard to understand that the Knavesmire, which still had standing water in the middle at the last meeting, should seem to need water more often than any other track.

I am clearly in a minority, as I don’t hear too many others complaining about it, but being in a minority has never bothered me too much. I’ve learned that it is no indication of whether I am right or wrong.

5th June 2016

I just watched the second episode of the new Top Gear. I was away last Sunday and so was unable to watch the first episode live. I did have it recorded but have to admit that I fell asleep half way through watching it. This week’s was a lot better but still a major disappointment.

For me, it is not that the new team are not every bit as good as the last. I think they are and the change is refreshing. Clarkson’s political incorrectness was a breath of fresh air in the early days and helped make it a ‘not to be missed’ programme for me but the format was very tired and latter episodes were, frankly, boring.

I was hoping that the new Top Gear would arrive with a completely new format but sadly not. It is pretty much the same as the old programme and that is very disappointing.
Let’s hope that ITV don’t make the same mistake when they take over the coverage of racing from Channel 4. I am assuming that there will be a magazine programme to replace The Morning Line and I am dearly hoping that they take the opportunity to come up with a new format that might bring a whole new audience to racing. Channel 4’s various reincarnations of The Morning Line have done little or nothing to make the programme appeal to anyone other than punters and, personally, I think it should be possible to produce a programme that appeals to all the family. Here’s hoping.

24th April 2016

‘BHA spokesman Robin Mounsey said: “The fact that Morning Suit was a colt rather than a filly was picked up on by the vet in the morning when the horse arrived at the course, and media outlets were informed in order that online racecards could be amended.’

Not so. Weatherbys were informed of their error long before the horse left Middleham. Granted, I should probably have noticed that the horse was wrongly described in the Racing Post when looking at the entries and the declarations at the five day and forty-eight hour stages but, as far as we were concerned, there was no doubt that the horse was a colt.

The Racing Post coverage seems to suggest that I was unaware of the sex of an animal in my yard. That, most certainly, is not the case. The horse is a colt, it is described as a colt on its passport, and on the application form for its name, and on every document and data entry that we have.

17th April 2016

When Byres Road ran at Doncaster (see yesterday’s Blethering), he finished last and I was asked if I could explain the poor performance. Yesterday, at Wolverhampton, Ordinal won by seven lengths and my travelling manager Calvin McCormack was asked to explain the apparent improvement in form.

This makes a bit more sense as, theoretically, an unscrupulous trainer could have sought to ensure that the horse did not run on its merits in its first three starts in order to obtain a low handicap rating.

Nonetheless, I told Calvin to tell the stewards (or more likely, his report would be passed via the stewards secretary) that we could not say that it was an improvement in form. That may seem a little ridiculous, especially as the Racing Post reported that ‘his opening mark is clearly not an accurate reflection of his ability’, but I think I can demonstrate that it is far from easy to say that Ordinal needed to improve to win this race. And it would certainly be unreasonable to expect Calvin to be able to properly assess the performance at the time.

Ordinal’s ten opponents had run a total of 71 times and had only achieved one win. That solitary win came from David’s Beauty (5th in this race) way back on the 15th July last year, in a Lingfield Claimer, and yesterday’s race was his tenth start since without winning. And David’s Beauty and Tombe Girl (9th) were the only two horses in the race to have reached the frame on their last outing.

In short, this was a very poor handicap contested, principally, by out-of-form maidens and it is arguable that, if I had run Ordinal in a similar grade of handicap but against horses with good recent form, the result might have been very different.

It will be very interesting to see how the handicapper assesses the performance. They work by choosing a marker horse that they perceive to have run to its best and then adjusting the others’ ratings, up or down, to reflect their finishing position relative to that horse. I wonder what horse they will choose here. None of Ordinal’s opponents have ever succeeded in winning a handicap which might arguably suggest that they are all over-rated rather than that Ordinal is massively under-rated.

So, I think I was right to tell Calvin to say that he could not say whether the performance was an improvement or not. He assures me that that is what he said but the official report states that “The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, ORDINAL, ridden by Silvestre De Sousa and trained by Mark Johnston, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer’s representative who stated that the colt appreciated the drop into handicap company.”

16th April 2016

It seems that in racing, more than any other sport, we have come to a position where the public believe that information about the well-being of the participants and/or ‘inside information’ on how they are likely to perform is at least as important as their recent form. It is a very unhealthy state to be in.

Can you imagine a situation where a football manager or coach was asked if one of the players was going to score in a game or how many goals in total the team would score? It would be ridiculous to ask such questions, and if they were answered it would immediately put the game under suspicion as to whether it was fixed, but no more ridiculous than the daily barrage I get from punters on course who ask, ‘will it win?’. And hardly more ridiculous than those questions we get on an almost daily basis from Racing Post journalists who want ‘a line’ on our runners.

So how have we got ourselves into this mess. Of course, the media are partly to blame and there is a new breed of lazy scribes who would rather print opinion from trainers as if it were fact than put the effort into studying the form themselves. But the journalists, along with the public at large, were encouraged to believe in the value of inside information by the very authorities who manage and police the sport.

The BHA are just as likely as the Racing Post to publish misinformation and opinion as if it were fact and are even more likely than the media to misquote trainers, put words into jockeys mouths, or simply invent the ‘facts’.

I have long complained about the BHA instructions requiring trainers to give an explanation for perceived poor performances. Not only is the ruling wrong in principle but the way it is enforced and managed by stipendiary stewards and stewards’ secretaries is appalling.

Surely, before you can give an explanation for a poor performance, you must first establish that it is a poor performance and not the horse’s true form. That isn’t always easy to do and I would argue that, more often than not, the form is correct and shouldn’t be excused. It is virtually impossible to convince the authorities of this and, if they don’t like what you tell them, they will simply say that ‘the trainer could offer no explanation for the horse’s performance’.

A classical example of this occurred when Byres Road ran at Doncaster and finished last of five behind our own Soldier in Action and Juste Pour Nous, beaten 44 lengths. I did not believe this was a ‘poor performance’ and thought it was, quite simply, the horse’s true form – if form on heavy ground (officially described as ‘Soft’ but the race was run 13.25 seconds slow and times on the day ranged from 8.26 seconds slow over 6 furlongs to 14.5 seconds slow over a mile and a half) can ever be considered to be true. When the stipendiary steward enquired about what he and/or the stewards considered to be a poor performance, I told him that I have long been telling the handicappers that it is almost impossible for horses given a rating of 80 or more for performances on the All-Weather to carry that rating over to the turf and I use early season races at Doncaster as the example every time.

The race at Doncaster was a 0-95 handicap but, as it turned out, the top weight only had a rating of 84. Nonetheless, Byres Road was the only horse not to have previously run on turf. He gained his rating of 80 after running in two Maiden Auction races and a Maiden on the All-Weather. That is not to say that I believe he will be any less effective on turf but the Doncaster race was many classes above anything he had contested before. He ran well up to a point, leading for almost seven furlongs, but was the first horse beaten and, after that, his finishing position, in heavy ground, was irrelevant. I told the stipendiary steward all this but it was published on the BHA website that ‘the Stewards considered the running of BYRES ROAD, ridden by Franny Norton and trained by Mark Johnston, which finished unplaced. They noted the trainer could offer no explanation for the colt’s performance.’ Not true. I did offer an explanation but he chose to ignore it and what the public got was neither fact nor my opinion.

As it happens, Byres Road came out 11 days later and finished 2nd beaten ¾ of a length at Ripon in heavy ground. So I was wrong. Well, yes and no. The handicapper, as is so often the case, certainly wasn’t as far out as I had thought and was clearly right to ignore the Doncaster performance. But that does not mean that the horse was suffering from some physical ailment at Doncaster, had put in a poor performance, and had made a miraculous recovery by the time Ripon came around.

Most form students will, understandably, jump to the fact that the Doncaster race was over two furlongs further than Ripon but, interestingly, Byres Road was headed and beaten more than two furlongs out at Doncaster but was apparently struggling early in the race at Ripon and was running on very strongly at the finish.

So, what, with the huge benefit of hindsight, is the explanation? For a start, form on very soft ground is notoriously unreliable, distances are greatly extended, and finishing positions of horses which are the first to throw down the gauntlet and get beaten are irrelevant. These were different races, run at a different pace, and Byres Road didn’t get involved until near the finish at Ripon.

The one thing we know for sure is that the official ‘explanation’ given for Doncaster was not the one I gave. The stewards are misleading the public and, in doing so, are doing more harm than good to the reputation of our sport.

9th April 2016

We are often told that the biggest disincentive to working in racing is the unsociable hours. I’m sure it is true and it is an issue that I am continually trying to solve but maybe we have to accept that it is an inevitable consequence of working in a leisure industry.

Deirdre and I stayed last night in a well known Perthshire hotel and had dinner in their main restaurant. We were served by a very efficient waitress called Lauren. This morning, at breakfast, we were served by the same girl.

Deirdre commented to her about having to work late and start early again and she said, ‘No, I got off early last night at 10 o’clock’. A normal shift would, apparently, end at Midnight (‘usually finished up about half past’, she said) and begin again at 8am.

She gets five and a half hours off in the afternoon and, of course, weekends are the busiest times and it is all hands on deck.


I can’t stop thinking about something Richard Hannon said in a recent Racing Post interview. He said that he spent £12.8M on ‘spec’ at last year’s yearling sales and, just to confirm that it wasn’t a typing error, quipped ‘don’t round it up to thirteen million.

That equates to 100 yearlings at an average of £128,000 each. I wonder, did he buy more than 100 yearlings on ‘spec’ or was he spending more than an average of £128,000. Add to that the homebreds and those that were bought by agents or to order and it tells me that he must have a phenomenal team of two-year-olds.

It seems I did right to get in early before he unleashes that mob.

1st April 2016

It is truly incredible. The group that I used to dub ‘Racing For No Change’ have made one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of thoroughbred racing and breeding. Rod Street, head of the team at Great British Racing, will go down in the history of the thoroughbred alongside the likes of Admiral Rous, Frederico Tesio and, dare I say, Sheikh Mohammed.
He has, with the agreement of all ‘stakeholders’, moved the birthday of all thoroughbred horses in the northern hemisphere from 1st January to the Monday after British Champions Day. This will allow all championships – including jockeys, owners, trainers, sires, and first-season sires – to end on the same day and will, as Rod says, ‘provide a narrative for the sport, a great sponsorship opportunity, and an extra attraction for the thousands of people who attend British Champions Day principally to listen to the music and who hitherto had no interest in the sport’.

It will provide a few minor challenges but the team at Great British Racing are confident that none are insurmountable. It will mean that races like the Racing Post Trophy are now for three-year-olds only but that is surely preferable to having them sit outside some championships as is currently the case.

The breeding industry will, of course, face new challenges as there will now be a distinct advantage to having foals born in November but Rod Street has confirmed that, with the help of the new artificial daylight system perfected and marketed by Irish horsebox driver Sam Murphy, which is already in use in many yards, this is easily achievable. It is rumoured that Mr. Murphy, who must surely have had prior knowledge of the changes, is in talks with the Microsoft Corporation who have expressed a serious interest in his products.

Yearling and foal sales will be able to move to a position earlier in the year allowing vendors to present their stock while they still have their summer coats.

It isn’t yet confirmed but it is assumed that southern hemisphere authorities will move their thoroughbred birthday by approximately two and a half months to maintain the differential.
As with other GBR initiatives, full details will be available through Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

16th March 2016

Yesterday we saw a Champion Hurdle that will surely go down in history. Only the fourth mare ever to win the race; a track record; a fourth Champion Hurdle in the last six years for trainer Willie Mullins; comparisons with the mighty Dawn Run and talks of an attempt at emulating that mare in the Gold Cup; and an emotional Ruby Walsh dedicating the win to ‘little Annie’, daughter of the Mullins team’s vet Tim Brennan, who is battling cancer.

What a story. A media man’s dream. Jam packed full of ‘narrative’ – the buzz word that gets the marketing team at Great British Racing so excited.
So, where would you expect to find the story in racing’s trade paper? Front page? When we had a dedicated trade paper it would have been but the Racing Post put it on page 22. Is anyone on the editorial staff at that newspaper even interested in racing? They clearly don’t believe that their readership is.
It is a major problem in racing today. At many times in my life there were two dedicated racing papers. First the Sporting Life and the Sporting Chronicle (I remember the thrill in my very early years of being allowed to stay up until after midnight some Fridays to go with my dad on the drive from East Kilbride into Glasgow to get his Saturday Sporting Chronicle) and then the Life and the Racing Post.

I was a columnist on the Sporting Life from 1994 until it closed and, to be honest, saw it as the bookmakers’ paper while the Post was the racing industry paper. The Life was designed to be dismantled and pinned to bookmakers’ walls while the Post was a normal paper.

I longed to write for the Racing Post and got that opportunity when the Life closed but, from that day on, the Racing Post started to go downhill. I’m not sure if it was down to the ownership – initially it was Mirror Group, owners of the Sporting Life – or if it was driven by the editorial staff but it has been a steady decline to the paper that we have today.

When questioned on this issue, Rod Street of Great British Racing says that it doesn’t matter, that the days of the printed media are over, and that social media (Facebook and Twitter) is what matters now.

I don’t agree with him. The Racing Post may have a small circulation when compared with the mainstream press but they are still perceived by many as being the racing industry’s trade paper and their lack of interest in the sport and those that take part must be harmful. Their occasional open hostility certainly is.

6th March 2016

The main thrust of Julian Muscat’s Wednesday Column this week in the Racing Post was blown away by the announcement the next day that the Government have at last moved to replace the Levy with a Racing Right but his views on issues like bookmakers contributions, media rights payments to racecourses, and Approved Betting Partners are nonetheless relevant and are a breath of fresh air in a paper which is now almost exclusively aimed at promoting the interests of the betting industry.

I did not agree with his comparisons between Greyhound welfare and Retraining of Racehorses as they involve two very different animals and very different welfare issues but horseracing should indeed take serious note of the state of greyhound racing as a sport in Britain despite what it earns for bookmakers (Julian Muscat puts bookmakers profits from greyhound racing as in excess of £200 million per annum).

He also hits the nail on the head when pointing out that, while levy receipts have halved in the last ten years, media rights payments to racecourses have advanced from £30m in 2006 to £173m in 2014. He says that this makes the ‘lukeworm response from racing’s large independent tracks to British racing’s authorized betting partner initiative so much harder to fathom’. I’d go a lot further and say that their ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude is appalling and those large, racehorse-owning, sponsors who are pouring money into those tracks should make sure to wear some very thick gloves because these racetracks have demonstrated their repeated willingness to bite the hands that feed them.

In a separate piece, Julian talks of the recently published Horses In Training book and points out that the strings listed by some (probably most) trainers are inaccurate to say the least. Clearly, like me, he is interested in this type of statistic but I was surprised by his stating that ‘if you really want to know the score, all you have to do is look up any trainer’s number of individual runners last season on the Racing Post website’. And the headline writers had the temerity to top this piece with the statement ‘How long’s a trainer’s string? Try our site’.

It isn’t as easy as that and this piece made me wonder how many people at the Racing Post have any real interest in racing’s facts and figures and how many use their own website. For a start, if you want to access the statistics section of the Racing Post website, you have to be a paid-up member but you could go to each trainer individually, using the search facility or by clicking on the name in a racecard or on another free page. However, you will then find that the website does not give any clear figures on individual numbers of runners or winners. To obtain this you would need to go to the list of individual horses run and count them, counting those that have won separately if you want to know the ratio of winners to runners, or buy the paper. Unfortunately, if you want to know about flat trainers’ strings, you will need to buy the paper in summer time as they only publish it for the Flat Trainer’s Championship and that, as we know, spans parts of two calendar years.

They used to publish a pull-out summary at the end of the year which gave you these figures but, in their wisdom, they decided not to publish it at the end of 2015 and instead gave us one in November at the end of the ‘championship’.

Much of this mess is down to our friends at ‘Great British Racing’ who, at times, seem to know a lot about social media and very little about horseracing. They are intent on giving us championships that start and end on arbitrary days which only fit with some weird and wonderful ‘narrative’ that they themselves have conjured up. We now get four different flat trainers tables in the statistics section of the Racing Post website but none of them give us the figures on individual winners or runners as claimed in Julian Muscat’s column.

2nd January 2016

Wolverhampton clerk of the course Fergus Cameron said the number of horses entered for the Apprentice Handicap on Wednesday, which had to be re-opened after attracting only three entries and now has only five entries, was ‘extremely unusual’. Eh? Where has he been? It is a 1m 4f and 50yds handicap for 3yo’s only rated 46-65. How many qualified horses, fit to run and ready to race over that trip in the first week of January, does he think there are in training? Very few, I can tell him.

There were three races re-opened for Wednesday’s all-weather fixtures and there are a further six races re-opened today for the two all-weather meetings scheduled for Thursday.

Don’t get me wrong, it makes for easier pickings for trainers like me and I will take advantage of the situation whenever I can but it is an unsustainable situation. There is simply too much racing for the available horse population.

Hogmanay 2015

Three all-weather meetings next Wednesday, 6th January. Nothing to do with rescheduling or abandoned jump meeting. This was, it seems, the plan all along. It will be very interesting to see how the field sizes hold up. Personally, I think it is very bad planning.

Christmas Eve 2015

Oh, the weather outside is frightful but no possibility of snow. Just more and more rain and a driving wind to force it through every crevice.
It isn’t stopping us, thanks to the wonders of modern all-weather gallops, but it really does make it the most miserable environment to work in. I feel for the riders.

There is a temptation to say that the horses can just have a day off and stay dry in their boxes – after all, many won’t be running in the coming months – but we are all conscious of the need to exercise as many as possible. From today, through until Monday, we have half the staff on holiday and horses will alternate between being ridden and having days when they are just exercised on the walker. They get more than fresh enough on this regime without us reducing exercise any further.

No entries to make today and no declarations. Our next possible runners will be Monday 28th.

20th December 2015 (later)

So sad to hear about the death of, The Times racing reporter, Alan Lee. He told me just a few weeks ago that he was off work due to a heart problem but he suggested that all would be well and it seems that everyone thought that was the case.

He was a thoroughly decent man and is a great loss to British horseracing

20th December 2015

There is no rest for the wicked. This is supposed to be our quiet time of the year but, if opportunities for Blethering are anything to go by, it clearly isn’t.
This time last year I had already been to Las Vegas for the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) and I had sworn that I would make it an annual pilgrimage but, one year on, the resolution had to be broken. I was also writing, in early November last year, of taking it easy and finding time for cycling, and I was berated by some for saying that while our horses were in the midst of a long losing streak. Well, no such problems this year. The bike has hardly turned a wheel but I can’t say that that is the reason for any apparently better form. We are again operating with a very small string, principally made up of horses which ‘missed the boat’ for one reason or another in the middle of the season, and so the runners and consequently the winners are fairly few and far between. Luckily, however, one or two decent individuals have kept popping one in and have kept us off that dreaded Racing Post Cold Trainers List.

Richard Fahey confessed, over a few drinks at the sales, that he got some perverse pleasure from our plight last October and November and would exchange text messages with Jamie Osborne counting the days that we went without a winner. So I make no apology now for pointing out that it is him that has had a spell on the Cold List this year although he got off it just the other day.

In the midst of our long losing run I heard James Willoughby discussing it on TV and he said that he didn’t believe in ‘trainer form’. He was, firstly, unconvinced by the figures which simply look at days/runs without a winner and take no account of whether the horses are running to form or not, and he said that we were running a ‘subset of horses’ which were not up to our usual standard. I was delighted to accept this at the time but looking back now I see that, of the 67 horses which ran during that period, 53 went on to race into 2015 and 31 of them (58%) won races: a total of 59 races between them. Of the 14 that retired at the end of the year, only 5 retired as maidens. I didn’t count how many of those that failed to win again (22) retired as maidens but it was very few i.e. most had been successful before October of last year.

It was not, therefore, a ‘subset of horses’ in terms of ability to win races but, perhaps, many of them were on the way down having peaked earlier in the season or had not yet had an opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Since then I have done some work with James Willoughby on Breeze-Up sales and we have had discussions on what he can bring to our team in terms of analytics. We will certainly be working more closely with him in future and, perhaps, the phenomena of trainer form will need to be looked at again.

17th October 2015

What a remarkable horse Fire Fighting is. Last night, at Dundalk he won the Listed Carlingford Stakes by five lengths. That was his 22nd start of 2015. But, if we look a little further back through his relatively short career, we see that it was his 37th start since May 2014.

Even more fascinating is that, when looking at his training record, I see, since the 8th January 2014, he has only twice had two consecutive days when he was not ridden. Those were when travelling to and from Dubai.

In January 2014 he was coming back from a complete break and he had 27 days walking and trotting before he commenced cantering. Since then, the longest period he has had without cantering is 22 days in December 2014 when we were preparing him for Dubai.

It is remarkable because, in most sports and particularly in horse racing, it is very unusual for an athlete to go two years in training without some form of injury enforcing a period of rest. But it does make me wonder how many other horses might thrive on constant training and racing. Fire Fighting, like every other horse, had at least one run during that period when the jockey got off and said he needed a break. It is an easy thing to say and, if you give a horse a break, it is impossible to prove that it was the wrong decision. They can’t get beaten if you don’t run them but, then again, they can’t win either. It depends whether you are judging your horses on their best performances or their worst. Fire Fighting has suffered many defeats but last night he performed as well as at any time in his 48 race, three year, career.

16th October 2015

My apologies for the lack of recent blethering but I have been, as my Australian friends would say, ‘flat out as a lizard drinking’ at the sales. As I write I am still at Tattersalls for Book 3 but, after a count up of my purchases last night, I have decided that I can’t buy any more until I clear some of those that are on the shelf. I currently have thirty yearlings available for sale which is a record for me but I have been aiming to buy the same numbers as last year and they have not been finding owners as quickly as in the past. Last year’s buying spree was driven by some uncertainty at the time about my numbers for this season but the formula worked so well that I am determined to try and repeat it with similar numbers in 2016.

So, today I find myself at a horse sale but trying to keep away from the ring for fear that I feel compelled to buy another horse. Hence, a few moments to read the Racing Post and do some blethering.

I will not be at Ascot for Champions Day tomorrow and I see Tom Marquand, the leader in the apprentice jockey championship race, won’t be there either as he has opted to ride at Catterick where he can get more rides. Silvestre de Sousa will be there to be crowned Champion Jockey as he is 36 winners clear of William Buick but it should surely have occurred to organisers that, if it was a close run thing, the excitement might be at Catterick rather than Ascot. Silvestre has no rides booked after Ascot on Saturday and it looks like he will be sticking with his plan to depart for the United States as soon as the championship is over. It is interesting to note that, if the championship was based on all rides in 2015, he would still be in front but only four ahead of Like Morris and I think we could rest assured that he would not be leaving to ride abroad.

24th September 2015 (later)

And now for something completely different.

Today at Newmarket, between races, I went to buy a coffee from a stall. When she came to give me my coffee, the girl started to put a plastic lid on it and I said, ‘I don’t need a lid’, as I was taking it to a table a few feet away. ‘Sorry’, she said, ‘I have to put a lid on it. Health and safety’.

Who dreams up these rules? Probably the same sort of eejit that decides that the lid needs recycling.

What is the world coming to? I tried to drink it through the hole in the lid but burned my lips. I then spilled it over my fingers when trying to get the lid off. If someone from the Health and Safety executive had happened to walk by, I might have been tempted to throw it.

24th September 2015

Chelmsford made much of its proximity to Newmarket in its re-launch, and I could see the logic in that, but I can’t see the logic in them running on the same day as racing at ‘headquarters’ and I really can’t understand why they would put on a high-quality, £119,000 card on the same day as Newmarket runs an eight-race £686,000 card with three Group races and a 35 runner, £160,000, handicap.

‘Ah but’, you might say, ‘Chelmsford is evening racing’. It is, but its first race on Saturday starts 10 minutes after the last at Newmarket. And the first race today was 10 minutes before the last at Newmarket. They are close, but not that close. If there is method in their madness, maybe someone could enlighten me because I can’t see it.

I suppose it could have something to do with keeping punters in the betting shops that went there to watch, and bet on, the big races at HQ. If so, it is another reminder that those who compile the fixture list and the race programme have scant regard for the horse-population or the availability of jockeys to ride them.

15th September 2015

What on earth were they playing at at Carlisle? Why would you put water on Good-Firm ground (i.e. optimum flat racing ground as per BHA instructions) yesterday when rain was virtually guaranteed? They are now calling the ground Good-Soft.

It is so annoying when you have declared a horse in preference to other entries and taken it to Carlisle only to find that the ground has been altered deliberately. Nobody can complain about rain but it was just ridiculous to be putting water on that track.

I was there six days ago and it was described as Good-Firm (Good in places) but times, and our rider, suggested that it was softer than that. There was no sense in watering. I am fuming and have withdrawn my second runner.

As is our policy, Mark Johnston Racing, will carry all the costs of taking Mustaqbal to Carlisle rather than pass them on to the owner. I wish Jockey Club Racecourses had to pay. Maybe then they would think twice before reaching for the hosepipe on a cloudy autumnal day.

10th September 2015

I think it is vitally important, for the future of the thoroughbred breed, that we encourage the breeding of quality middle distance horses and I applaud all initiatives that seek to promote middle-distance and staying races.

I do, however, have reservations about the BHA’s plan to stage 10 new, reasonably valuable (£10,000) maiden races, between seven furlongs and a mile and one furlong, for horses sired by a stallion which won at a mile and a quarter or more.

These are the same conditions as Ascot’s Listed Chesham Stakes in June and I cannot believe that this encourages people to breed or buy potential stayers. I try to target the Chesham every year because, to be blunt, the restriction makes the race less competitive than other Royal Ascot two-year-old races and, of course, the fact that it is run in June means that it is usually won by a juvenile which possesses more than average stamina. But these races are to be run at the tail end of the season.

When you consider that sons and daughters of the mighty Shamardal, whose progeny have an average winning distance of 8.1 furlongs, will be eligible for these races, but the progeny of Cape Cross, whose average winning distance is 9.1 furlongs, will not, you can see that the initiative is flawed. Worse still, the progeny of Dansili (9.4), Dubawi (9.5) and Teofilo (10.6) will not be eligible either.

If you want to encourage and promote juveniles with stamina, why not simply give them more opportunities to run in races which truly require stamina, i.e. over more than a mile? What is to be gained by providing an easier, and more valuable, opportunity for a horse to win over seven furlongs just because his sire won over ten furlongs even if that sire is proven not to be an influence for stamina.

Personally, I can’t see the logic and I fear that these races will be weaker and have smaller fields than average simply because less horses are eligible.

8th September 2015

Give credit where credit is due.

A press release from York:

“Press Release 7 September 2015
YORK INCREASES PRIZE MONEY FOR THE OCTOBER MEETING

York Racecourse is delighted to announce an increase of £100,000 to prize money for its final meeting of the 2015 season on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 October. All fourteen races over the two days will benefit, as the prize fund is boosted by over 25% from last year, to a record level of £416,000.

The feature race of the Saturday meeting is the now £100,000 Coral Sprint Trophy, an ultra-competitive sprint handicap benefitting from a £25,000 boost to become the nineteenth race of the season to have a six figure purse. Also benefitting is the Listed Coral Rockingham Stakes for juveniles that will now offer £50,000, a race which uncovered the talents of impressive Coolmore Nunthorpe third placed horse, Mattmu.

Channel 4 cameras will be at the track on the Friday for the first time, to cover two races; including a new £50,000 feature handicap for three year old staying horses over a mile and three quarters supported by Stan James. This new race is intended to provide an autumn opportunity for the highly rated stayers who may well have competed in the Betfred Melrose Stakes at the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival.

All fourteen races have received an increase in prize funds across the two days with no race offering less than £12,000 on the Friday and £15,000 on the Saturday.

Connections in October are the beneficiaries of the strong performance of the business across racing and non racing events, and from the support of racegoers, sponsors and partners, over the summer months. The track remains true to its mission of investing in prize money, fixed facilities such as the new Northern End Development and in the experience of going racing on the Knavesmire. These latest increases will take prize money at York in 2015 to a record level of £6.7m which is some 26% ahead of 2012.

York Racecourse Chairman, Lord Grimthorpe, “York is delighted that our continued commercial success has allowed us to keep investing in the prize money, facilities and experience of racing at York. Our aim across all seventeen days is to stage compelling, competitive race action. Our investment in prize money has already been rewarded with tremendous contests for our feature races over the summer months and our hope is that these further increases to October will be rewarded by a fitting finale to the season. Our continued thanks to our supporters and sponsors who help us to invest in racing at York.”

ENDS

7th September 2015

So, Silvestre de Sousa is going to the USA to try and ply his trade there. I can’t blame him. It’s quite simple, the money is a lot better there and he has no retainer to tie him to the UK. It is apparently something that he has been considering for some time and probably relates to uncertainty about the support he was going to get in the UK as a freelance although, as it turns out, he is clear in the championship.

What bothers me is the timing. He is leaving straight after Champions Day, October 17th. That’s exactly what I predicted would happen if they moved the end of the championship.

If the championship ended on November 7th or thereabouts, as has been the case in recent years, would Silvestre be leaving before then? I’m sure the answer is no, despite his commanding lead. And, if it ended on 31st December, it is possible that he, and others, would ride in Britain right to the end of the year and that we would have less of a drain to sunnier and more lucrative climes.

As it happens, the next three jockeys in the championship table all have retainers from Dubai based owners so they will stay here as long as their employers dictate and will, presumably, leave for Dubai at some stage so the championship dates will only have limited affect on their movements. And the next two, Luke Morris and Jim Crowley, tend to remain in the UK anyway. But it is clear that the change in championship dates has resulted in the premature departure of our leading rider this year and that is exactly what I said would happen.

As I have said many times before, if you are going to make the championship meaningful and especially if you are going to put significant money behind it, you must structure it to drive the behaviour that you want. Surely, we don’t want our top riders to ride in Britain for less than six months of the year?
I wonder if Silvestre will come back. There must be a significant risk that he won’t although I understand that he is planning to start off in New York and I think he might find the winter conditions there to be far worse than he has ever encountered at Wolverhampton. What is almost certain is that, if he does come back, and they leave the jockeys championship as it stands, we are unlikely to see him again before the Guineas meeting in May.

6th September 2015

Just watched Prince Gibraltar trot up in the G1 Grosser Preis Von Baden. A second G1 win for the colt.

Two weeks ago I bought the yearling full brother in Deauville for One Hundred Thousand Euros. He is well through the breaking process and has no issues. What a bargain.

Unbelievably, he is still for sale and I have had virtually no interest in him.

27th August 2015

Oops! It seems I have upset William Derby (again!) and this time he may have a point. I must accept that the statement I have made below, that ‘York racecourse is making a profit on entry fees alone’, is factually incorrect.

It seems that, while I was correct that some racecourses had vociferously objected to BHA proposals to put a cap on owners’ contributions to individual races at 75%, it was eventually agreed that owners’ contributions must not exceed 90% of any total prize fund. Furthermore, it was also ruled that total prize-funds should not exceed the advertised total amount and so, where entry fees exceed 90% of that sum, any surplus must be returned, first to those eliminated by ballot from the race and then, if a surplus still remained, pro-rata to other contributors.

In the case of the DBS Premier Yearling Stakes, York actually made an executive contribution of £40,000, £10,000 more than the minimum required, and so owners only contributed 86.66% of the total prize-fund.

I must, therefore, apologise to York for my error but it still doesn’t make me feel much happier about the principles of running ‘Sales’ races or other races where the owners are, in the main, running for their own money. And it also raises the question of what exactly constitutes an ‘executive’ contribution from a racecourse these days and where that money comes from but I’ll save that for another day. Maybe the next Klarion.

20th August 2015

The prize-money at this year’s York Ebor Festival is really fantastic, with no race worth less than £50,000, and that was certainly an incentive to me to make entries there. But, as is so often the case with racecourses these days, there is, at least, one fly in the ointment.
The first race on today’s card is the DBS Premier Yearling Stakes and it is worth a total of £300,000 with £147,540 going to the winner. But a glance at the conditions reveals that owners have contributed no less than £302,000 to enter this race (plus all the surcharges and add-ons). So York racecourse is making a profit on entry fees alone before you account for contributions from the levy, media rights and sponsorship. And that makes me wonder, what is the sponsor, DBS (Doncaster Bloodstock Sales), putting into this race and where is their contribution going?
William Derby – the chief executive and clerk of the course at York – was one of those who got up in arms about BHA proposals to put a cap on owners’ contributions to races at 75% and, when I told him that I thought he was wrong, he got quite upset and accused me of a bias against York. Come on, William, they weren’t trying to set it at 10% or even an astronomical 25%. 75% contribution from owners would, to my mind, be ridiculous and, when it gets to over 100%, it is daylight robbery.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to win the money for my owner with Delizia and, if I do, I’ll be very grateful to all those other owners who stumped up to put this race on.

19th August 2015

All in all, a very successful sale at Deauville with a total of five purchases which is one up on the same time last year. But those who are trying to portray me as the new Jack Berry should note that my yearlings, so far, are by Dalakhani, Manduro, Motivator, Rock of Gibraltar, and Henrythenavigator. And all from middle-distance families. They are more likely to be winning the 2017 Queen’s Vase than the 2016 Brocklesby but I can’t, and won’t, change my passion for middle-distance horses or my desire to acquire pedigrees with some hope of Classic success.

That said, I am off to Doncaster next week where, last year, I did acquire the Brocklesby winner and I will be looking for a different type of horse there. I’ll be looking for a different type of animal there but I still won’t compromise on pedigree too much. There needs to be some class in there.


We kick off at York today with seven runners and I’m hoping for a busy, and fruitful, week. Much has been made, particularly in the media, of our disappointing record at York in the last few years so it is very interesting to note that I am still 7th in today’s Racing Post, York, (2011+) trainers table from the 47 trainers with runners today. I don’t deny that the strike rate of 6% is way below that which I would normally be aiming for but it is the same as Richard Fahey’s (2nd in that table) and Tim Easterby (5th). So what is all the fuss about? It can only be that I set a much higher standard in years gone by and the drop from those levels puzzles me as much as anyone.

Richard Hughes wrote a very interesting piece at the weekend about the tendency for races to be run up the middle of the track at York in recent years and it is possible that our downturn in form there coincided with that change. Richard doesn’t believe that that has anything to do with the ground and suggests that the riders have collectively opted to come to the middle to open up the races and remove the advantage previously held by front runners who hogged the rail. Interesting? I wonder how many of those front runners were trained by M. Johnston. Maybe it is time for us to try and turn the clock back.

17th August 2015

Another frustrating evening at the sales. I simply haven’t got enough money to buy the horses that I want. I did push the boat out as far as I could and bid 200,000 euros for a lovely son of Acclamation but he was knocked down to Al Shaqab Racing for 240,000 euros.

I did, however, secure lot 131, a cracking son of Rock of Gibraltar for 100,000 euros. As a sire Rock of Gibraltar has never reached the heights achieved by the likes of Shamardal or Dubawi but he is capable of getting high class horses and, when combined with a mare that has already produced a Group 1 winner by him, you get exactly the kind of horse that can slip through the cracks, satisfy my desire for high-class pedigrees, and fall into my price bracket.

The dam, Princess Sofia, has had four previous foals of racing age and three of those were by Rock of Gibraltar. Two of those have run. The first, Prince of Sofia, won three times in France and achieved a rating of 91 (not bad) but the other was Prince of Gibraltar. His three wins included the Criterium de St. Cloud (Gr.1) and the Prix Greffuhle (Gr.2). He was also placed in the Grand Prix de Paris (Gr.1) and the Prix du Jockey Club (Gr.1). Just the sort of thing I’m looking for and, with the current exchange rate, it hopefully won’t be too long before he finds an owner.

16th August 2015

The chaos of the sales season, which coincides with the busiest time of year for racing, kicked off for me in Deauville yesterday. The Arqana catalogue is improving year on year, both in terms of pedigree and the quality of the individuals, so I found myself flat out in the ring with 57 of the 81 lots offered yesterday evening making my list. But, unfortunately, it was very difficult to buy with most exceeding my budget and/or the value I had put on them.

We did, however, acquire two yearlings from the first session. Lot 19 was a colt bred by Mark Johnston Racing out of our mare Attima by Dalakhani and consigned for us by Haras du Petit Tellier. He was one of only two Dalakhanis in the sale and arguably too immature to be sold so early in the year but my principle objective was to value him for any owner that would like to have him with me and, having offered him without reserve, I bought him back for 20,000 euros. Arqana listed him in their results as ‘bought in’ and I have now been inundated with people trying to buy him but, as with all the yearlings I purchase, he is only available if remaining in training at Kingsley Park.

My other purchase, Lot 88, also has a Mark Johnston Racing connection as she is out of the mare Lady Eclair that I trained to win six races for Martin Lightbody. This filly is very good looking and has a lot of her mother about her but she is by Henrythenavigator and, frankly, he has gone right out of fashion. Hence the price tag of just 30,000 euros.

Further details of both horses can be seen here on our ‘yearlings for sale’ page.

I’ll be back in the ring this evening trying to add more potential stars to the Kingsley Park juvenile team for 2016.

13th August 2015

I’m hoping to depart for Deauville this morning for my first yearling sale of the year. The weather, however, is extremely dodgy for flying. There is heavy rain and thunder sweeping across the channel into southern England and it will continue northwards later.

It could be bad and, at home, we are preparing for the forecast of a month’s rainfall in the next 48 hours. Drains and guttering are being checked and we will be battening down the hatches.

Racecourses around the country will be preparing too and at Doncaster, where the ground is currently described as ‘Good-Firm’ (the optimum ground for Flat racing under BHA guidelines) they are preparing by ………. you’ve guessed it ………. WATERING!

30th June 2015

Hamilton’s top jockey, Joe Fanning, with a 21% strike rate at the track, rides in just two of the seven races there today. He has one ride for me, my only runner, and one for Irish trainer Lee Smyth. No other British trainer is using him. Why?

Some of it is most certainly down to the fact that I had entries in five of the seven races and so he may well have been perceived as unavailable. There may also be a feeling that, due to his loyalty to us, he is unlikely to be available for the horse next time. But the same applies to most top jockeys. It’s puzzling.

25th June 2015

Another two individual two-year-old winners yesterday taking our tally of two-year-old wins for 2015 to 31 and our number of individual two-year-old winners to 25. It is really great and I am thoroughly enjoying this change of emphasis in the yard but I am not giving you these figures in order to boast about my achievements. If, however, like me, you enjoy looking at the trainers and jockeys statistics, you will probably, like me, be very confused by what you read in the Racing Post.

It is no fault of the ultra-reliable Racing Post. I have little doubt that their figures, both in the paper and on the website, are accurate (it is rare, but not unheard of, for them to make mistakes). But the paper doesn’t give us figures for two-year-olds of 2015 (the season having started on 9th November) and the website, where you can find the figures for the number of wins by looking into data on individual trainers, does not give us any details on the number of individual two-year-old runners. I was able to ascertain, by looking at all the horses I have run this year, that we have run 50 individual two-year-olds in 2015, that 25 of them have won, and that they have won a total of 31 races. So, as far as my yard is concerned, you must deduct two wins, two individual winners, and ten individual runners from the figures given in the Racing Post newspaper. I have no idea what the situation is for other trainers and so it is difficult to gain a proper perspective on what we have achieved, so far, this year.

15th June 2015

Announcement from ARC today:

“Today Arena Racing Company (“ARC”) announces changes to its Racing Department.

ARC Racing Director Jim Allen has decided to leave the company at the end of the year. In addition to his role at ARC Jim is a licensed flat trainer and will be moving to the USA in 2016 to set up his own training yard.”

I suppose he knows better than anyone how bad prize-money is in the UK when compared to the USA. He’ll also have some inside track on what the future holds for us here with ARC’s emphasis on all-weather racing and quantity ahead of quality.

2nd June 2015

Some great examples of ‘sliderule handicapping’ with my horses this week. Sliderule handicapping, as I have explained before, is the term Jim McGrath gives to the policy of moving horses up and down by small amounts while leaving them in the same grade and, effectively making no difference whatsoever to their chances of winning a race.

Bizzario dropped 1lb to 76; Casila dropped 1lb to 64, after a 56 length defeat at Brighton; Cassandane dropped 1lb to 56 after finishing 6th of 9 beaten 14 lengths; Maid in Rio dropped 2lbs to 95 for finishing 10th of 10 beaten a whopping 97 lengths; Regal Ways dropped 1lb to 71 after finishing last beaten 26 lengths; and Yorkindred Spirit dropped 2lbs to 57 after yet another unplaced run. What is the point?

Coversely, Leaderene went up 10lbs for winning a very weak Newmarket handicap in which she started at 11/10 favourite, presumably due to only one of the other six runners having been placed this year and that was back in February on the all-weather.

26th April 2015

Chaos again today when 18 races re-opened at declaration time for Tuesday. After reopening, most fields are still small with Brighton’s 7 races only attracting an average field size of 6.6, 6.7 at Chelmsford, 7.7 at Nottingham and 7.9 at Wolverhampton. Only Newcastle, with an average field size of 11, managed to pass the magic figure of 8 (the BHA target) and that is the track which Arena Racing Company want to scrap and turn into another all-weather course. If they have their way that will, presumably, mean that three of Tuesday’s five meetings would be run on artificial surfaces next year and they will be looking to increase the number of fixtures and the number of races on each card. Where do they think the horses will come from? Presumably, they are looking to something like the BAGS greyhound racing model with more and more moderate horses having more and more runs and maybe even being controlled by the track managers.

22nd April 2015

It is April and we have already enjoyed some unseasonably good weather, but rain and low temperatures are set to run on Friday all across the country and that is forecast to continue well into next week. Yet many clerks of courses are already watering and setting us up for unnaturally softened and false ground.
Wetherby stages its first flat meeting on Sunday and the clerk of the course has admitted that he has been watering and is aiming for Good ground. BHA instructions are to aim for Good to Firm but virtually every clerk ignores those instructions.

At Sandown they are watering ‘to maintain current conditions’ which are Good (Good to Firm in places) and, worst of all, at Newcastle they are watering to ‘ensure safe ground’ when there are four or five days of rain forecast in the run up to their meeting.

Clearly we now, generally, get ground conditions that are softer than would be the case if it was left to nature and, in my opinion, that is not good for racing or the future of the breed but, beyond that, I am certain that the continuous watering does untold damage to the turf and results in false, loose, ground regardless of the going description.

8th April 2015

I am delighted to see a table in this morning’s Racing Post for a ‘British Flat Owners Championship’ running from 9th November 2014 until the 7th November 2015 and seemingly ignoring the BHA’s decision to run this championship over a period from early May until early October.
Hopefully, this is a clear decision by someone at the Racing Post to put the wishes of the vast majority of their readers and those involved professionally in racing ahead of a nonsensical marketing ploy from Great British Racing. I wonder why they didn’t apply absolute logic and run the table from 1st January to 31st December.

I dearly hope that this is not simply a result of the fact that GBR gave almost no coverage to the owners championship and that the Racing Post may not have noticed that it was changed. That would be very sad and would confirm all that I have been saying in recent years about the lack of regard for the owners championship.

5th April 2015

Today at 10am, when declarations for Tuesday closed, all seven races at Chelmsford were re-opened due to insufficient declarations. Four at Lingfield and one at Pontefract were in the same boat. In the end, the seven race card at Chelmsford has attracted 38 horses, an average of 5.4 runners per race. Seven races at Lingfield have a total of 52 declared runners, 7.4 runners per race. And seven races at Pontefract, on turf, have 75 declared runners, an average of 10.7 declared runners per race. But we still have 48 hours to go in which a multitude of things can go wrong with horses. It is inevitable that the number that turn up will be even less.

I am not one of those that is obsessed with big field sizes or that believes more runners necessarily makes for better, or more competitive, racing. But more runners invariably increases bookmakers’ profit margins and so they are pretty much obsessed with it and racecourses and the BHA have undertaken to try and give them what they want. Yet, strangely, they do not seem to be able to grasp the simple fact that, if they keep increasing the number of available races without doing anything to increase the population of horses available to race, field sizes have to suffer. It is pretty simple arithmetic.

So, do we really need more racing? You can rest assured that, if tracks invest large sums of money to convert their turf tracks to all-weather, they expect to run a lot more races than they do now. Where do they think the horses are going to come from?

4th April 2015

The BHA’s efforts to combat small fields have led to complete chaos in the entry system. 42% of flat races which closed yesterday, for next Thursday, have been re-opened this morning due to insufficient entries. That means that those of us who made entries in those races yesterday, can’t see what the Thursday race looks like before making decisions about races on Monday if the horse/s already hold entries. More owners’ money wasted.

And I can tell you now that, despite Monday being a bank holiday, which traditionally attracted huge numbers of entries and large fields, races will be re-opened, again, at 10am this morning due to insufficient declarations. Two races at Wolverhampton are guaranteed to re-open already which, of course, makes a mockery of the declaration deadline.

20th March 2015

I sympathise with French trainer Francois Rohaut, Stan Moore and any other trainer who entered the three-year-old mile race on AW Championship Day only to find that it was reopened and that four horses were then added.

However, Francois Rohaut, is mistaken when he says that the rules had been changed ‘in the middle of things’. This rule, which allows for races to be re-opened at the entry stage if they attract insufficient entries, is relatively new but was in place long before this race closed. Nonetheless, I agree that it is unfair to allow a second chance to enter, after having seen the number of initial entries and the rating of the top horse, with no extra cost over and above that paid by the original entries. The result is that many of us watch entry and declaration tracking and don’t enter races which we know will re-open.

The entry tracking system is generally a good thing and to simply do away with it would not solve the problem of insufficient entries. The answer, surely, is to allow re-opening but with a significant supplementary fee for entering at a later stage. These supplementary fees should go entirely to prize-money (as with the Epsom Derby and many other major early-closing races) to compensate those that entered at the first stage.

17th March 2015

‘Racing professionals were bitterly divided yesterday over a radical shake-up to the British Flat Jockeys’ championship’, say the Racing Post this morning. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that. There is nothing ‘bitter’ about it. It looks to me like racing professionals are simply divided into those that have a vested, very personal, interest in only working in British racing during the most lucrative summer months, and those who are more concerned about the best interests of the sport in Britain as a whole. And those of us who are against it are, I would suggest, more saddened than bitter.

As for non-professionals, assuming most of those who vote in Racing Post on-line polls are racing fans rather than professionals, 75% of them are against it too.

The Professional Jockeys Association, on the other hand, supported the move, while admitting that many of their members wouldn’t agree, and their Chief Executive, Paul Struthers, said the shortened season would be less ‘attritional’ (did he invent that word?). And yet, they want the jump jockeys championship to remain on a twelve month basis. Well, that says it all, doesn’t it? Even the hardest working, half starved, flat jockey couldn’t say his job involved more attrition than that of a jump jockey. No, the simple fact is that there is nowhere more lucrative for the jump jockeys to go and so they choose to ply their trade in Britain throughout the year.

And I am further saddened to see that they have applied the same madness to the owners championship. Frankly, the owners championship is all but meaningless as it stands but I have long been calling for something to be done about that. Owners are the only group who might just be in a position to increase their investment in British racing in order to win a championship if we could make it really important to them but rather than try to make it important and use it to encourage owners to race in Britain, our marketers have put all the focus and attention on the jockeys championship and tagged the owners onto it as an afterthought. What’s more, owners can now take their best horses to race in Dubai for the winter and be back in time for all ‘championship’ races. That has to be good for racing in Dubai which, last time I looked, was doing very nicely.

16th March 2015

It is purely coincidence that I wrote about the jockeys championship yesterday. I had no idea whatsoever that changes were going to be announced this morning and, if previous changes to the trainers championship are anything to go by, the same probably applies to most jockeys.
The Racing Post doesn’t say whether or not there is a significant prize to go along with this new championship but, as they mention that there ‘will also be a prize for the most wins in a calendar year’, I think we can take it that there is.

So you can now brace yourself for the departure of our top jockeys, to sunnier, more lucrative, climes in early October. They may, or may not, return for the Craven meeting but you can take it that the majority will only ride in Britain for six months of the year. Another great idea from the folks at Racing For No Change.

Thankfully, they haven’t yet changed the trainers or owners championship to a similar format but you couldn’t even guess what idiotic idea they might come up with next. The trainers championship runs from November to November which, as Andrew Scutts says in the Racing Post, ‘is curious’ but he goes on to say that ‘if it is to be on a full-year basis it might just as well be as it is than change it to January to December’. He, as a journalist working for the Racing Post, should know better. The Racing Post website currently posts four different sets of statistics for trainers: Championship, Calendar Year, AW Championship, and Turf (which, bizarrely, includes a large number of races run on all-weather surfaces) and the only one which makes any real sense is the Calendar Year as two of the others include horses of different ‘generations’ (two-year-olds become three-year-olds on January 1st) and, as I say above, the ‘Turf’ table includes all-weather races. Nonsensical.

15th March 2015

An interesting piece in this morning’s Racing Post points out that we can expect there to be a jockey shortage at the Lincoln meeting with the introduction of a £155,000 card at Chelmsford in addition to Kempton and, most importantly, the Dubai World Cup.

I can’t remember the last time I was at the Lincoln meeting. A long long time ago. I am invariably at the Dubai Word Cup and it, almost invariably, clashes with the Lincoln.

I’m sure that few, if any, people care whether I am there or not and the same will apply to most other trainers but there have been many times when the BHA, GBR (formerly Racing For No Change), and the Racecourse Association have claimed that trainers need to do more to interact with the public and the media at race meetings. There have even been moves to force us to do so although attendance itself has, to date, always been voluntary.

The importance of attracting top jockeys to our top meetings is rarely disputed although there are now many examples of fixture clashes at weekends which demonstrate that some of the Food And Beverage men and women who run racecourses have lost sight of this. Clashes with top international meetings like the Dubai World Cup cannot always be avoided and we just have to face the fact that, when it happens, Britain, with its pitiful prize-money, is always going to be less attractive to those who have the opportunity to ride at a more lucrative meeting. But, surely, it is foolish, to say the least, to encourage them to do so.

We have already succumbed to pressure and agreed to start the British jockeys championship in late March and end it in early November, reducing it to little over seven months of the year, but there have been numerous calls for further reductions to a season of less than six months and suggestions that this championship should carry a reward in the region of £50,000 for riding the most winners in half of the year.

The main argument for a break in the season, and it has some merit, is that we cannot expect our top jockeys to work flat out for twelve months of the year. But the reality is that the top jockeys take the opportunity, when wins don’t count for the championship, to ride abroad in countries where the prize-money is generally much better. I have no doubt that a twelve month championship would result in our top jockeys having a much greater presence on our racecourses throughout the year and would ultimately be beneficial to British racing. I am sure they would still go to the Dubai World Cup, the Breeders Cup, the Arc and for a couple of weeks lying on a beach somewhere, and rightly so.

14th March 2015

All six races at Chelmsford City on Monday were re-opened at the declarations stage due to insufficient declared runners. In the end 36 horses have been declared.

Do we need more all-weather racing? Clearly not.

Is there still a need for an all-weather track in the north? Almost certainly, yes. It has been shown that there is a significant population of horses based in the north which do not race during the winter but would be likely to if the distance to the nearest all-weather course was not so extreme. But, unfortunately, with every new all-weather course, they want to create more and more fixtures and the horse population simply isn’t available to sustain all this racing. It isn’t rocket science.

19th January 2015

When discussing Champagne Ransom’s run in 4.10 at Wolverhampton today on Attheraces, Matt Chapman made reference to a horse of ours rallying to win the St. James Palace Stakes under ‘Kevin Darley’. I assume he was talking about Bijou D’Inde getting back up after being headed by Ashkalani and the rider was, of course, Jason Weaver. Surprisingly, Jason, sitting in the studio, didn’t pick up on this.

15th January 2015

I should have known that there would be no need for helmet lights in Dubai. Even with less than 50% of the floodlights on, it is like daylight at Meydan from 4.30am. I can read the paper, never mind watch my horses.

Now, at 6.30pm, with racing about to start and all the lights on, it really looks magnificent. Here’s to a big run from Sennockian Star.

The BHA has announced that we will have record prize-money of £130 Million in Britain this year. That is good news indeed but needs to be considered in relation to the size of the fixture list. Not long ago I looked at prize-money in certain specific races and compared them with levels for the same race 10 and 20 years previously. I found that, in most cases, we were behind the actual prize-money of 10 years ago (not corrected for inflation) and, in some cases, prize-money had not risen in 20 years. I’ll need to have another look now.

The Racecourse Association also made an announcement and told us that racecourse executive contributions to prize-money would also reach a new high of £58.4M in 2015 and that this is ‘effectively’ double the 2010 level of £30.3M. This is also very welcome news but, unfortunately, really needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. The RCA, like some of its members, like to compare racecourse contributions with 2010 because the funding system changed after that and media payments replaced much of the levy. Unlike levy, which must be used for prize-money, media payments go to the racecourses and they consider that as their money to do with as they please. In short, the goalposts have been moved half way up the pitch.

What I’d like to know is, have owners’ contributions been reduced at all and where does Britain stand now in a comparison of owners’ running costs against returns. I fear we might not have gained much ground.

I know I should look at the positive side and tell you all that you should have a racehorse and have it trained in Britain (by me) but I just can’t help myself. I have to tell it as it is.

14th January 2015

Just checked in to Meydan hotel and unpacked. It is now 3.20 AM and my first horse pulls out at 4.40 so no point in going to bed. I have no idea why they start in the middle of the night. Of course, it is important to get the horses back in before it gets too hot and there may well be difficulties in keeping visitors separate from resident horses but, from past experience, I’d say it has got nothing to do with that.

I think it is down to the Australian/American influence. They – especially the Australians – seem to like working their horses in the dark. They watch a little light going round in the pitch black and say ‘By Jingoes, that went well. Bruce!’

I’ve never quite understood it myself. At home, Clive Britain does something similar. Maybe there’s a bit of Aussie in him.

9th January 2015

Happy New Year.


This is always a relatively quiet time of year for us but this year is exceptionally quiet. We have plenty horses in – just slightly down on this time last year – but the vast majority of those are two-year-olds and we only have a handful of horses for all-weather racing.

This morning, at our weekly managers’ meeting, when looking for our horses which are fit to run and win, as we do every week, there were only three possible runners in the next seven days and one of those is in Dubai. Compare that with January 2014, when we had 45 runners and 16 winners, and you will see that things are very different.

It should give me time to indulge my other passions of cycling and flying but the weather hasn’t really been conducive to either and my flying is normally associated with going racing. No runners, no need to use the plane.

It has meant that I have had more free time in the evenings and I have been able to get my unread e mails down to just under 50 (it normally sits around 100 and can reach 200 in mid season). I have also watched a little bit of television and caught up with the news.

I have been particularly saddened by the coverage of the crisis in the NHS. In my youth our Health Service was, by far, the envy of the world and there was no country you would rather be taken ill or injured in. Sadly, that is no longer the case. They still do a magnificent job and I have utmost admiration for the staff but they are suffering from desperate under-funding at a time when demand has never been greater.

I assume that demand is principally driven by the ageing population and changes the NHS structure which have driven more people to A&E who might previously have called their GP but there has also been a huge culture change and it is very evident in the racing industry. Working with horses, or any large animals, is a risky business and accidents and injuries are an unfortunate inevitability. But I cannot help but notice that the percentage of falls which result in an ambulance being called has increased exponentially in recent years.

Gone are the days when I would personally assess the extent of injuries and make a decision on whether a rider could be helped into the car and driven to the GP in Leyburn or to hospital. It wasn’t uncommon at all for us to deal with distal limb fractures in this way, if there were no other injuries. I myself was driven to the hospital in Catterick by our then secretary, Polly Saverey, with a complete fracture of my radius and ulna and my arm wrapped in a horse travelling boot.

Now, many relatively minor injuries result in a paramedic (we are very lucky in Middleham to have a paramedic service that is usually nearby), an ambulance, and a trip to hospital. Everyone is frightened of making the wrong decision, falling foul of Health & Safety rules, or facing litigation. It is ‘better to be safe than sorry’, of course, but this culture has gone too far. It is all very well to say that we shouldn’t take any risks and we should leave first-aid treatment to the professionals but, watching those over-stretched A&E departments on the news, I couldn’t help but wonder about those with truly life-threatening injuries or ailments who might have to wait for attention because health professionals are tied up elsewhere dealing with a sprained ankle.

18th December 2014

A very wet, windy, and miserable day today in Middleham as I watched my string of just six horses canter by. This is always the quietest time of year for us in terms of horses in full work but, on this day last year there were 40 horses cantering. Of today’s six, one is destined for Dubai and one is to go home after it runs tomorrow. So, if you have been wondering why we are having such a quiet time on the All-Weather, that is the reason.

Our other older horses will start cantering again early in the New Year and I’m sure some will be ready to run before the turf begins in March but there will be nothing like the numbers that we have had in recent years.

17th December 2014

The debate about small fields rages on and today in the Racing Post Julian Muscatt reminds us of the simple arithmetic. There are far fewer horses in training than in 2008 and far more races for them to run in.

I haven’t seen any serious proposals on how we are going to get the number of horses in training back up and it seems that most of the measures which will be introduced are aimed at increasing the number of runs per horse. Who will pay for that? There will be a small increase in prize money and prizes in most class 2-6 races will go down to sixth place but, in the vast majority of cases, those prizes won’t even cover costs for the day, never mind the cost of keeping the horses in training.

One Irish owner who sent me a horse, already fit to run, on 24th September, has just informed me that she will return home after running on Friday, win or lose. He, quite rightly, points out that it makes no economic sense. Friday’s race will be her seventh run in that period and she has been ‘in the money’ in five of the six runs to date. Sadly, all that does is remind the owner of the economics of British racing and that every run adds significantly to the cost even when she gets placed.

12th December 2014

Last night Deirdre and I attended the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) in Las Vegas for the second time. Having been last year and been so taken by it, we just had to come again.

It is something that everyone who works with horses, in any capacity, should see. Even more so, anyone who works in what is now trendily called ‘Human Resources’ should see this too.

At one point a bull rider is tossed forward onto the head of the bull and thrown back and forward several times like a rag doll before being dumped and trampled by this huge animal. He is immediately attended by the ‘clowns’ – the brave men who draw the bulls attention away from fallen riders must have an official title but they behave like clowns – and others who are working around the chutes but no stretcher appears and nobody that would be recognisable in other sports as a paramedic. He is eventually helped to his feet and supported on either side as he shuffles, unceremoniously, with the legs torn out of his jeans, out of the arena. I never heard how badly he was injured – it looked serious – but, from what I saw last year, it is not inconceivable that he might be back there tonight and about to do it again. It is noticeable that the majority of bull and bronc riders walk with a limp.

I don’t actually know how dangerous this sport is and I would hesitate to suggest that these cowboys are any braver than our own National Hunt jockeys but their apparent disregard for their own safety – few bull riders and no bronc riders wear helmets – and the lack of obvious safety precautions is unusual, to say the least, in modern day sport.

I’m not saying that it is right and I’m certainly not saying that the safety precautions in other sports are wrong but I have to admit that the rawness and primitive nature of rodeo is a large part of the attraction. Other sports all seem very sanitised when compared to this. It is so easy to imagine how each discipline evolved from unregulated ‘games’ between working cowboys.

All the rodeo disciplines are tough, contact, sports and they are tough for the people and the animals that take part. I know that many will object to the fact that calves are roped, head and ‘tail’ (both hind legs), or roped and then wrestled to the ground and bound by a cord round three legs, with no other purpose than to test the skill of the cowboys but the risks to the animals are minimal indeed. For me it is a joy to see the skills of the working cowboy honed to this level and to watch man and horse working together as they have done for centuries. I’ll be back again.

3rd November 2014

Today we had the clearest indication yet that winter is coming and flat racing on turf is drawing to a close for the year: I was back on my bike for the first time since July. Just 21, very slow (11mph), undulating, on road, miles. A far cry from the Tour de France stage that I did back in summer and, on today’s performance, I wonder how I ever managed that.

Unfortunately, cycling isn’t anything like as much fun in winter but it is certainly easier for me to find time. If the past is anything to go by, I will now get out occasionally through until about March and then I will have a concerted effort to get a bit fitter for one or two longer trips in spring and early summer. Then, come August and the looming yearling sales, my cycling will grind to a halt and any pounds I might have shed will rapidly go back on. It can’t be the right way to do it.

5th October 2014

For the record, I was absolutely delighted to win The Tattersalls Millions 2yo Trophy and not, at all, as described by David Milnes in this morning’s Racing Post. I was very happy indeed. Very happy with the horse, very happy with the jockey, and very happy to have scooped £280,331 for Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed.

I told David Milnes all that but, when pressed by him on what I thought of these high-value restricted races, I had to be honest and say that I think they are wrong, bad for racing, and that for racecourses to object to a cap on entry fees at 75% of a race’s value is despicable.

For him to ask me these questions in the aftermath of such a victory was, arguably, a piece of good journalism. But to report it in the way he did was appalling and, sadly, typical of the standards which the Racing Post seem to set these days. It would appear that he didn’t listen to much, if any, of what I said in reply. If he didn’t already know how these races work, how they are financed and the effect that they have on Pattern racing and the competitiveness of other races, then 10 minutes research wouldn’t have gone amiss. If he was going to take that angle, he should have made the effort to gather some facts and write a reasonably balanced piece.

Ironically, David Milnes had phoned me on Thursday to get a comment on Secret Brief and others and I told him that I was rather fed up with Racing Post journalists phoning for comments from trainers and connections to fill the paper rather than giving us their own opinions. I pointed out that, three days previously, I had sent two horses all the way to Bath, landed a double, passed 200 domestic winners for the fifth time, and didn’t get even the smallest mention in Rodney Masters’ post race report. Of the eight races that day, only four got any mention at all. Maybe Rodney Masters didn’t turn up until after the second and left after the sixth. It was typical of current Racing Post content. It seems they aren’t really interested in news.

I told David Milnes exactly what I thought of Racing Post policy on reporting and added that, with its current inaccuracy on data, it is making it a very poor paper indeed. He claimed to agree with me and did so again yesterday but maybe he secretly needed to try and get his own back. Thankfully, as is now typical, his report was pushed to page 24 after one page of ‘news’ on page 23 and 22 pages of tipping and comments from connections.

27th September 2014

They’re at it again, watering when it is clear to anyone who bothers to look out the window that the ground will be softer than Good-Firm.
On Thursday, when doing declarations from Fairyhouse sale in Ireland, I asked our office to call Chester and ask how their going could possibly be Good-Soft when their close neighbour, Haydock, was Good-Firm and admitted to having applied 15mm of water. The clerk of the course at Chester was adamant, ‘the ground is Good-Soft and no water has applied’.

Silly me, I was questioning the wrong track. Today, on race day, Haydock now reports the ground as Good (Good-Soft in places, watered). What happened? Sudden downpour? Not that I am aware of although they are on the opposite side of the Pennines from us.

Ripon is on the same side of the Pennines and just 18 miles from Middleham, where the weather over the last couple of days has been exceptionally good. Their ground has gone from Good (Good to firm in places) to Good (watered). It seems clerks of the courses just cannot get it into their heads that the BHA instructions are to aim for Good-Firm ground.

In the last at Haydock today I run Ifwecan and Sir Guy Porteous. Both horses want good, fast, ground. I took the pair to Newmarket last weekend and, after a heavy shower of rain, I had to withdraw them. On Thursday I had the option to declare both horses for Newmarket again where the ground was described as Good. It is now Good-Firm at Newmarket and our horses are declared at Haydock where the ground has been altered by human intervention. It is extremely annoying, and expensive.

16th September 2014

Just redoing my entry diary (tool I use for planning entries) for the week beginning Monday 22nd September after all the handicap rating changes this morning. These new handicap ratings come into effect for entries made yesterday (Monday) but are not published until the following morning at 8am. Great, eh?

Anyway, next Thursday at Redcar there is a seven race card with two Sellers and not a single race above £4,500 total value. The whole card carries £30,000 prize money and I think Redcar will be gathering something in the region of £60,000 in media rights, plus Levy Board payments, plus entry fees, plus sponsorship, plus gate money. Well, maybe not a lot of gate money. I can’t imagine many people wanting to go and watch that.

18th August 2014

When driving to Nottingham last Tuesday, I was listening to an interview with comedian Ricky Gervais on Radio 2. He said that strangers have a habit of asking him to ‘tell us a joke’. He seemed to think that this was completely ridiculous and pointed out that you wouldn’t meet a builder in the street and say, ‘build us a wall, will you?’

He should try being a racehorse trainer. ‘Give us a winner’ – I get that ridiculous request, without fail, every single time I go racing. And others ask, in all seriousness, ‘will it win?’. When I try to explain, as politely as possible, that I don’t actually know and, if I did, I would be mega-rich and there would be no bookmaking industry to speak of, they invariably laugh.

It gets wearing as do the countless text messages and e mails claiming that I am a cheat and wishing all manner of ills on me, my family, the jockeys, and their families. They usually come when favourites get beaten but, on Saturday, I actually got one when a favourite, Bizzario, won at Chester.
It came from some idiot calling himself ‘Head Gate’ (‘Head Case’ would be a better name if you ask me), e mail address gathot@live.co.uk, and it claimed that Bizzario had either been doped or we have been cheating and had prevented Bizzario from running up to his best on his last two starts. If you know him, tell him what a plonker he is.


On the same trip to Nottingham I came up behind a white van of ‘tranny’ size and shape but this one was not the ubiquitous Ford Transit. This one was a Renault and the model, highlighted by the chrome plated badge on the back, was a Renault Trafic (yes, one f) Sport. ‘Sport’? What’s that all about?

On checking their website I found that the ‘sport’ model has a number of extras including alloy wheels, leather covered steering wheel and fog lights. There was no mention of what type of sport it is equipped for. The mind boggles!

13th August 2014

Jim McGrath, of Timeform and Channel 4 fame, calls it ‘sliderule handicapping’: moving horses a pound or two in either direction while, effectively, leaving them in the same grade. It works in the end, for most horses, as those going down will eventually drop into a class where they are competitive and, as we all know, the handicappers push them up much faster than they bring them down in an effort to make them jump up in class and stop them winning. But I have to wonder why it seems to be beyond the wit of man to come up with a better system.

In this week’s round of handicap changes, Busatto went down 1lb from 92 to 91 having run 9th beaten 12 lengths. What is the point? This change, in itself, cannot have a bearing on his chance of winning next time.

Cayjo also went down a whole 1lb for finishing 7th beaten a mammoth 66 lengths on his first start in a handicap and it isn’t as if there was some previous form to say that the rating of 50 is accurate as, on his only three starts, he has been beaten 14 lengths, 26 lengths and 37 lengths. Having said this, at a rating of 50, a further drop is immaterial as there is no lower grade to run in.

Outbacker is, perhaps, the best example of the subjectivity of handicapping amongst our horses this week. She went down 3lbs to 62 for finishing 5th of 8, beaten 7 lengths at Catterick. But she also went down 1lb to 72 on the All Weather. It makes sense that she should have two different ratings as her form is clearly better on the All Weather but I defy any handicapper to explain, in arithmetic terms, the two rating changes which resulted from this one run. In any event, neither change is likely to make a material difference to her chance of winning (something she has failed to do in her last 12 starts) as she has not been dropped in grade.

Even more ridiculous is the change made to the handicap rating for Travel. Her turf rating of 62 has remained constant but her All Weather rating was dropped 1lb this week to 78. She last ran on 2nd June and has retired.

Conversely, Fire Fighting was raised 5lbs for winning by a head, and surviving a stewards enquiry, with the six runner field all covered by five lengths.

7th August 2014

I, perhaps naively, thought Simon Holt was a commentator but I see now, from his column in the Weekender that he is also a journalist and a radical thinker to boot.

Last week he discussed the damage that the handicap system does to British racing (see Straight Talking in the Klarion) and now he is questioning the weight-for-age scale which has been used since 1860. His ideas, if nothing else, are worthy of serious consideration but I think he goes slightly astray when he suggests that, perhaps, we should abandon 2yo racing and move everything back a year. I think he is maybe thinking that this would reduce the imbalances due to varying levels of maturity but, overall in his piece, he claims that the weight-for-age scale is now defunct because horses mature so much more quickly than they did 150 years ago. He probably also hasn’t considered that, if you moved the time that horses enter training back by a year, you would probably delay their maturity, at least in terms of their skeletal conditioning, by a similar amount of time.

4th August 2014

The racecourses, and in particular Jockey Club Racecourses, tell us that there isn’t too much racing and that fixtures shouldn’t be cut. I think we can assume that they wouldn’t agree that the weekends are too congested either as they are racing on Friday evening and Saturday on seven consecutive weekends at Newmarket with, apparently, no consideration for what is going on elsewhere.

Today, doing entries, we are faced with five races on Friday that have re-opened due to insufficient entries and you can rest assured that there will be many more which need to re-open at the declaration stage. That has become a daily routine. I am also at a loss to decide which entries to leave out for some horses which have numerous options.

Busatto, rated 90, and with good form from a mile to a mile and a quarter, has four options to make for Saturday ranging in value from £12,500 to £45,000. Salutation, rated 98, has two options on the same day in handicaps, both over 10 furlongs, and worth £20,000 and £45,000. And at a slightly lower level, Skytrain, rated 77, has three options to make at 7 furlongs or a mile with values ranging from £10,000 to £12,500. And that, of course, is just one day, in the space of one week there are 11 option for Skytrain at around a mile where he is within the handicap range. And lower again, Staffhoss, rated 63, has 32 possible handicap options in the space of a week.

Today, 15 races have had to re-open due to insufficient declarations for Wednesday’s racing.

25th July 2014

The following e mail from Niall Hannity by way of a follow up to my comments on 14th July:

Hi Mark,

With regards to what you wrote on your website. It is two weeks today since I started booking rides for Joe Fanning despite still not on the BHA site to do so. In this time I’ve booked him rides for 13 days racing, as we had one day with only three jumping fixtures. In this period Joe has been declared to ride for 27 different trainers’ (three were non-runners) and forty outside rides, resulting in eight outside winners.
With your horses running so well he has ridden 18 winners out of 75 rides in this time, Ryan Moore is 14-57 and Richard Hughes is 10-47, so Joe has been the busiest jockey in this period but, more importantly, the most successful.
Compared with other big (and small) yards your office staff are very well organised and it’s a very straightforward getting Joe rides.

Kind regards
Niall

The change in Joe’s fortunes really is quite remarkable and I am sure I’m not the only one wondering whether he would have been challenging for the jockeys championship if this change had taken place earlier.

14th July 2014

Two winners out of three runners today at Ayr. Can’t be bad. And a treble for Joe Fanning and his new agent Niall Hannity. The combination have only been working together for a few days and they are flying high. It is great to see Joe with full books of rides as he clearly deserves. I have long thought it to be totally ridiculous that Joe could go to tracks like Hamilton, where he is the leading rider, and have few, if any, rides apart from ours. It has always been blamed on me having entries in most races and liking to make my decisions as late as possible, but Niall is already showing that that was never the case.

I went to Ayr myself today. I flew from home, departing at just after noon and arriving in Prestwick an hour later. The twenty minute taxi ride from the airport still wrangles a bit as it adds 30% to the journey and is so unnecessary as we fly straight over the racecourse and could land so easily if the course were minded to allow it. They have all sorts of excuses for not allowing planes to land but none of them make sense. If only Hamilton or Musselburgh had the same space for an airstrip, I know they would have one in a shot.

Anyway I still arrived at the track in plenty time to partake of their unrivalled hospitality. I had forgotten just how good the lunch is and, if only I hadn’t been flying, I could have helped myself to wine too. It is hardly surprising that the dining room is packed but, strangely, the parade ring is empty by comparison. Surely it can’t be that the food and drink is so good that owners stay indoors rather than go out to see their horses. Clearly that isn’t the case and the sad answer is that many of those partaking of Ayr’s hospitality have no connection with runners at all.

I was approached by a stranger as I entered the course and asked if I could give him two badges and two lunch tickets. He knew that I had three runners and was quite put out when I declined to give him the owners’ badges. But, looking at the number of people in Ayr’s dining room and thinking of the touts at Newmarket last week, I have to conclude that some people are passing their badges to people with no connection to the runners and/or selling them.

On the one hand it is easy to say that the courses get off lightly as, overall, only a small percentage of available owners badges are ever taken up. Today, the Duke of Roxburgh and I used two of the available fourteen (or was in twenty?) badges for my horses. The owners pay dearly for the, sometimes doubtful, pleasure of competing for pitiful returns and a few entrance tickets, or even meals and drinks, should never be grudged to those who are paying to provide the participants. It could be argued that those entrance badges and meal tickets are the owners’ to do with as they please and I do encourage our owners, when they can’t attend themselves, to send their friends or even share their badges with other owners who don’t have a runner but are available to go. It generally works well, helps to promote the benefits of ownership, and most tracks are very accommodating and will even supply extra badges on the few occasions that they are required.

But, surely, to hand badges to strangers or, even worse, sell them to touts is a step too far. It belittles and devalues the privilege of racehorse ownership and might make courses like Ayr question their policy of providing such excellent fare for the owners who support them.

13th July 2014 a little later

When a quiet man speaks people tend to listen (maybe I should learn something from that), so it was good to hear Ryan Moore speak out against the ridiculous clash of four top meetings (Newmarket, York, Ascot and Chester) on Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the right people are listening.

If I remember rightly, Newmarket’s argument for moving to Saturday was not only about increased attendances (last year they fell well short of Chester and others on the day) but something to do with selling their pictures to the far east. However, they still derive a very large part of their annual income from UK media payments, the levy board and owners but they, and others, refuse to give due consideration to what is best for the sport overall.

It is all very well to say that these congested days provide opportunities for more jockeys but our best racing should, surely, feature our best jockeys.

13th July 2014

What went on at Chester this weekend? On Friday night, all bar one of the races were run within a second of standard time and two were on the fast side. Four of the seven races were won by the favourite i.e. the form worked out well.

The next day, with no rain in between, only one race got within two seconds of standard and one race was more than nine seconds slow. No favourites won i.e. the form went out the window.

Was the ground watered in between? The going descriptions were almost identical ‘Good to Firm (Good in places)’, with the penetrometer reading suggesting that it was fractionally faster on Saturday (7.7) than on Friday night (7.6).

The times, emphatically, say otherwise but there is no mention of watering. I can’t see any other possible explanation. Can you?