In his own inimitable fashion, independent bookie Geoff Banks offers his opinion of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival. This is an edited version of his post. The full version can be read via this link.
GEOFF BANKS WRITES:-
Since I was a very small boy, pre-gambling commission sensibilities and health and safety, I’ve taken bets at the Festival. It’s not hard to love the four day bash. So let’s dispel any myths I don’t enjoy and prosper from it. I love the whole bash and the organisation that goes into it. Clearly we all do. It’s the pervasive and damaging influence it has on the five months which run up to the great affair that has to change. I’ve been roundly critical of the impact on fields and competitiveness of top racing in National Hunt up to March. If as a regulator you’re not prepared to deal with the issues raised – and they are easily dealt with by the way, then you deserve to be criticised by pundits such as me. Although in this case, I have felt fairly isolated. Most racing commentators butter their bread by force feeding the masses a diet of ‘everything’s great’ for months on end. It’s so depressingly boring, I wonder how networks like Racing UK gain a single subscriber. Sport is full of controversy. Football embraces it. It adds to the quality and watchability of the whole thing. What’s wrong with admitting our failures, entertaining viewers and in such a way progressing the whole thing? Controversy will add, not detract interest in racing.
I understand why things are as they are. The top echelons of National Hunt trainers are some of the stuffiest men in sport.
I sat last year next to Gordon Elliott (pictured below) on Channel 4. I criticised openly policy which had top horses afforded cosy racecourse gallops after racing, after months of sitting in their boxes, instead of entertaining the public, as they are being paid to do. By punters and sponsors. Elliott’s indignant retort to me ‘what do you know about training horses?’
As if that makes any difference? I don’t have to play football to know Leicester players deserve the collective sack. Nor do I have to train a racehorse, Gordon, to understand the practice of shielding horses from competitive racing and eating grass for months is bad for the sport. Such attitudes and practices have to be stamped out.
Douvan is touted the best horse in racing. Where was he in the best races? Messing about in egg and spoon events at Cork.
Real Madrid playing Bristol City once every two months. A genuine sporting farce. If ever a connection deserved to fail, it’s Ricci with Douvan. If you’ve the best – get him out winning King George’s and Tingle Creeks. Kuato Star did. Remember that one? He didn’t shy from competition, trip, opposition. Douvan, Faugheen, Annie Power, Limini – the list of notable absentees or fails of Rich Ricci runners ar Cheltenham is long and distinguished. The policy of avoidance is a notable fail.
There are those who take issue with me saying such things. Comments like Rich Ricci can do as he likes because he pays the bills ta da ta da, (with our money by the way).. To those I say this. You can’t love a sport if you believe sticking a horse in a poor heat at Cork once every three months is in any way worthwhile, unless you’re talking through your pocket. Don’t forget Rich enriched himself at Barclays (Bank), now more famous for closing the accounts of legitimate businesses. In that regard they currently resemble bookies. Ricci of course has gambled freely with our money, now finds it difficult to do the same when it is his own charges that are involved.
The whole Douvan drama I enjoyed thoroughly. There will be a world of wailing as to his injury and debate one way or t’other how it happened and what ifs. For most books the race was a meaningless betting heat – not the entire point I know. I am very strongly of the view – and I’ve made it plain for months, almost on my own I might add, – that this diet of avoidance has a price. You rob the fans and indeed the horse of potential rich heritage.
I view Rich Ricci and his totally negative approach as a cancer on the sport.
Sending Champion hurdler elects to the Mares and a weekly buffet of excuses dutifully peddled by an all too tame racing press. Sorry to most hacks, but it is true. Folk aren’t buying your papers, and your columns are shrinking because we know Annie Power won’t face Faugheen. Yet you print it. Fine if you’d rather sell betting tickets than newspapers!
Mullins seems a jolly amiable fellah – and doubtless he’s doing what’s best for the stable by ensuring the owner sending him horses worth 300 thousand plus a pop continues to do just that. Every trainer needs material. He threw his eggs into one basket and lost Gigginstown. He left top animals out of the best of races, and now they’re injured. It’s arguable Douvan arrived too fresh to the Festival. It’s arguable horses bred to race are harder to train if they aren’t sent out to actually race. Only arguable I understand. Fans of the sport, cast your mind back to Kauto Star, and Denman. Had Ricci and Mullins trained these two, we would never have seen it actually happen. Fact.
Those of you who watched the Morning Line will have heard me criticise policy that leaves stars on the sidelines. Nobody likes to hear I told you so, but I did tell you so. I was hard on Willie for losing O’Leary when the topic was raised. It was simply poor business. No doubt there’s more to it than money. I mean who doesn’t negotiate bills?
By the way. Mullins can sure train, Walsh can ride with great skill and sets horses up to fences in a manner I’ve never seen before. Head down controlling the stride. Elliott is unquestionably talented and deserves his moment in the sun. Let’s not confuse criticism of policy with their talents. I congratulate them on their performances – even if I done my cocos fielding against some of their winners.
To progress matters the regulators, and the influential JCR in this case simply have to grasp a few nettles and take on these overbearing trainers. Championship events must have pre-qualifying criteria. A minimum condition of entry. A minimum number of graded heats and class must have been attempted. It’s a norm in other sports. Racecourse gallops should be stamped out for horses who intentionally sit on the sidelines since December – or worse. And the total number of graded heats has to be slashed.
Every single decision should be based on the betterment of the sport. Trainers will adapt. Mullins will not avoid Cheltenham if you tell him to sign up on February 1st. After the trials meeting if you ask why I mention this timeline. Ante Post wagering will return as currently it’s a dead duck. Interestingly, conditions of entry to the festival favours the Jockey Club, who’s lesser graded heats have been turned into rather dull events by the withdrawal of top stock. Notable the King George, only saved by the enterprise and commitment of one Colin Tizzard.
There have also to be maximum ratings in certain races. Such as the Mares, to stop Champion Hurdle contenders plundering prizes lesser owners and trainers covet. They deserve their shot at fame and fortune at our best Festival. It’s vital to small owners and trainers. Expect them to pony up for horses and then see any chance they have of glory robbed by Annie Power? It’s simply poor business.
I don’t agree with the moaners who think the festival is either too expensive, or too busy. Bums on seats answers that one. Will we all be there next year? God willing, yes. Will the regulators listen to my calls for more control on how the festival plays on the rest of the programme? Well, they should. To continue with the way it’s going, with northern racing and many trainers suffering, poor fields in graded heats and stars avoiding each other isn’t a recipe for success at all. Unless, that is, you’re happy with a five month chat about Cheltenham annually – and nothing else.
I’d say it’s time for a well publicised crisis meeting, and let’s call it that, to show our commitment to jump racing. We all love it, it cannot be permitted to continue as a one week event.
Geoff has had his say. Now you have yours. Leave your comments below this post.
Soon, I’ll be writing a post with my thoughts, from the punting side of the fence. Vernon Grant