Much outrage filled the Twittersphere on Tuesday morning, day one of the much anticipated Cheltenham Festival.
The owner of Vautour, Rich Ricci, announced live on Channel 4 that the horse would not after all be taking his place in the Gold Cup on Friday. Instead, Vautour was to be entered for the Ryanair Chase the day before.
I can understand the anger of punters who placed money on Vautour to win the Gold Gup before the bookies were offering Non Runner No Bet terms. But they should have waited or, did as I did, and had a bet at 3/1 on Vautour to win any race at the festival. There’s no guarantee he will do that, of course. But the 3/1 for ‘any race’ was always going to be a better price than for Vautour to win a specific one.
Racing Post tipster Paul Kealy was clearly angry, tweeting: “Now we can start spleen-venting. Bloody disgrace to drop that bombshell.”
Racing Post editor Bruce Millington said: “Less than two weeks ago I heard a man who looked just like Rich Ricci say Vautour would run in the Gold Cup or wouldn’t run at the Festival.”
And award winning Racing Post journalist Lee Mottershead tweeted: “Excitement on arriving at the track knocked by the Vautour Ryanair news. Deeply disappointing on a number of fronts. Not a good start.”
There was outrage from the representatives of bookmakers. I suspect many of those people will be hoping this change of mind backfires on Rich Ricci.
It was wrong that, shortly after he broke the news, the company of which he became Executive Chairman in January, BetBright, cynically announced that they would be paying out punters who had bet on Vautour to win the Gold Cup. I’m afraid such PR stunts reflect badly on Ricci, BetBright and the bookmaking industry as a whole.
Online anger was not reserved for the owner of Vautour. It was also directed at the presentation team of the Morning Line programme on Channel 4.
The Head of Racing at bookmakers Coral is the knowledgeable James Knight. The views expressed on his Twitter feed are personal. This morning he was very critical of the production team at IMG, who produce the Channel 4 Racing coverage and the Morning Line show.
James said: “The Morning Line needs someone to press Ricci on this Vautour decision if it is to be taken seriously as a Racing programme. Not good enough from C4 – Ricci/Mullins need to be pressed on why they stated *with certainty* it was Gold Cup for Vautour. Massive U turn.”
James Knight was far from alone in suggesting Channel 4 had given Rich Ricci an easy ride.
True, had I been producing I would have wanted someone on the sofa to ask a serious question or two of Rich Ricci. Had he not misled punters by making the earlier statement recalled today by Bruce Millington?
I suspect that had Graham Cunningham been on the sofa on Tuesday morning he would have indeed had something to say about the previous misleading comments, and the late in the day decision to switch Vautour. I have a mental picture of Graham sat in a hotel room, watching the Morning Line and spitting feathers at the missed opportunity. But I may be wrong on that front.
Would Paul Kealy or Bruce Millington have dared lay into Ricci had they been on the Morning Line sofa? I wonder. Their colleague Tom Segal, ‘Pricewise’ in the Racing Post, certainly did not.
Rich Ricci should not have said what he did weeks ago. I for one was never convinced Vautour would be in the Gold Cup. Hence why I took that ‘win any race’ price and also why I had a win bet on a different horse for the Gold Cup once NRNB terms applied.
When Willie Mullins was asked by Nick Luck about the switch on the same programme he hesitated for a long time before answering the question. He said “I had it in the back of my mind all along and then, you know, Ruby can only ride one of them and I was keen for Ruby to ride him (Vautor). (Stablemate) Djakadam was always going for the Gold Cup. Now Djakadam has arrived here we’re happy with him so we’ve changed tack.”
Frankly, I thought Mullins looked a tad embarrassed at how late the decision had been made, or perhaps at how the news was broken.
I took from what Mullins said to Channel 4 that jockey Ruby Walsh had played a big part in the decision. Ruby wants to ride Djakadam in the Gold Cup on Friday and had taken advice from his good friend AP McCoy on that matter. And Ruby wants to ride as many winners as possible at the meeting. That’s understandable. If he thinks Vautour has a great chance of winning the Ryanair, he was always going to put pressure on the owner and trainer to ensure the two horses did not run in the same race.
The breaking news was a good exclusive for the Channel 4 team, although in the hour before they went on air the betting market had led one to believe a change was coming. Ricci giving the exclusive to TV clearly annoyed some representatives of the print media. But he owns the horse and, ultimately, it’s his decision where and when his horses race and how he communicates that news to the media. Later in the day, when talking to At The Races and Racing UK, he did offer an apology to punters if they felt he had misled them.
As for the criticism aimed at the Channel 4 team for not interrogating Ricci this morning, well I had to laugh. Some of the same people who have complained that for three years the producers have been too “serious” with their coverage of racing, were the very same people who were quick to point the finger this morning. They wanted Rich Ricci to be given a hard time. Some even alleged that those who cover racing for Channel 4 are too close to such people and, therefore, unwilling to upset them. Ye Gods! Perish the thought. I’ll go to the foot of my stairs!
Sorry, are bookies also not too close to those who own, train and ride racehorses? Do they not pay some of those people to offer tips or write articles for their websites? Are those who work for the racing pages of the Racing Post not chummy with the same people and ghostwrite features on their behalf? Are they also careful not to upset the racing fraternity for fear of being frozen out? Of course they are. Racing can be something of a closed shop community. It’s cold if you’re the one left standing outside.
Some of the same people who said the viewing figures for Channel 4 Racing had plummeted because coverage was “boring” and “too journalistic” led, were today calling for a more investigative approach. And yet these are the folk who have spent the past three years pining for the era when they thought, to quote Nick Luck talking to me here last December, the show was… “something that was a cross between Morecambe and Wise and The Fast Show.”
Many of those who pointed a finger at the IMG production team this morning have stated again and again, on Twitter or in print, that they wanted Channel 4 Racing to be more fun, more entertaining. Well, you got your way.
Next year ITV will chase viewers by doing things the ITV way. Professional people will be involved in the production, of that I have no doubt. They will be led by a very experienced TV professional of my acquaintance. And ITV are sure to get bigger viewing figures. Firstly because it is ITV and not Channel 4. That’s a given. But they will also likely take the programming that surrounds the racing downmarket. They will seek to appeal to their type of audience. An ITV audience. That’s perfectly understandable.
But don’t complain if, come the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, Rich Ricci isn’t being asked difficult questions by the likes of Jeremy Kyle. Although I guess, if he is part of the presentation team, there’s always the opportunity for the charismatic owner of some of the finest thoroughbred racehorses in training to be asked to undergo a lie detector test.