Jul 2012

'The Horse Is Everything In Our World'

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The Thursday morning session of the Asian Racing Conference was about a single thing - how can this sport use popular culture to press itself onto new audiences? How can the sport of kings attract new people, young people? How can the game become bigger? It was a mammoth subject matter, a topic with so many tentacles it could have gone on for days. It began with the morning session - the racing authors (myself included) - and it concluded at lunchtime with the officials’ comments - the Turkish and Hong Kong Jockey Clubs, and the charismatic Englishman and sports media consultant Henry Birtles.

The session was well attended. Here was a topic, after all, that was glutted with interesting things - Secretariat, Black Caviar, Frankel, the movie The Cup, the book The Cup, Peter Pan, Phar Lap. You can talk until twilight about racing strategies and the way of the future, about technology and punting and sustainable marketing, but it is the blood and guts of horse racing that excites people. And that was what this session was filled with - the champions, the horses.

Les Carlyon was epic in his opening speech, nailing things as only Les can.  ‘The horse is everything in our world,’ he said, ‘and we should never forget it. Take away the horse, take away those who look after him, and you’ve just got gambling, and no one makes heroes of those who hang around casino tables or betting shops.’ Les spoke about the enormity of the Melbourne Cup, and I was transfixed. He said, ‘The Melbourne Cup was an institution, and it still is. It was also a reference point. A farmer would be telling you about a terrible drought. He’d say he couldn’t remember the date, but it was the year The Trump won the Cup’.

I’ve spent these past few days with Les Carlyon, and I now know how much the man adores horses. To him, racing is all about the grand animal, the magnificent beast, and his speech shoved home that without celebration of the thoroughbred, without adulation of the animal, racing will wither. ‘For the public, sport is an emotional experience,’ he said. ‘All sport works around the idea of heroes. We should never forget that the hero of our sport, the thing that distinguishes it [the sport] from mere commerce, is the horse.’

Carlyon had created a refreshing distinction, that racing ‘the industry’ was different from racing ‘the sport’. The industry, he said, was a term he disliked. ‘Every time the word ‘industry’ is used, racing is dehumanised’, he said. ‘Steel making, food processing, these are not spectator sports.’ He proposed that the answer, to engaging new people and sustaining the romance of the sport, was creativity, not bureaucracy.

I was left wondering, in front of hundreds of people, how someone like Les Carlyon is not running the sport in Australia. Fanciful, I know, because Carlyon is a writer, a beautiful one, but his logic is so sharp and needle-like accurate. He folds common sense around passion like so few can, and he can express it, with words yes, but also with oration.

With Carlyon’s introduction complete, Andrew Harding guided his panel through some of the tougher facets of horse racing. Eric O’Keefe, author and screenwriter of The Cup, Patrick Bartley, author of On The Punt and turf reporter for the Age, myself and Carlyon, crossed all sorts of terrain. There were the challenges in finding new audiences, and keeping them, there was the Black Caviar factor, and the query as to whether racing associations did enough to ‘exploit’ her. I suggested, probably going against the grain of my colleagues, that Australia had done enough when it came to utilising the mare. Take the case of Frankel, I said, who hardly made it out of the sports pages, if he even did.

Embroiled in this discussion was the matter of public perception, and Bartley and Carlyon agreed that racing, overall, was in good shape. When Harding asked me, I had to reveal that I disagreed with my colleagues. In the case of Luck, for example, the HBO series that was disbanded amid a furore of animal welfare cries, the overwhelming news item was not that a mini-series had magnificently represented the horse racing game; it was that the series had been cancelled because horses had died. It was a little too true to school for my liking.

‘I’ve been around horses all my life,’ I told the conference, ‘and I understand that accidents happen. I am an animal lover, and I adore horse racing, but I understand the sport, I know how it ticks. I know it’s not cruel, but non-followers don’t know that. They are being fed a stream of negative headlines. I watch the argument on social media between anti-racing protestors and pro-racing supporters, I see the rising tide of discontent about racing because horses are hurt, horses are drugged.’ Why, I proposed, would a young person, with no previous interest in racing and, for example, a recent reader of the New York Times front-page exposes, be enticed into the sport? Racing, I said, is not an ugly sport to your educated eye, or to mine. But to the unschooled eye, it is ugly, and it can involve death and carnage.

This, more than anything else I said during the morning’s session, generated feedback. I had some interesting folk approach me immediately after proceedings to tell me how important it was to them that this issue had been highlighted. In particular, American Douglas Reed of the Race Track Industry Program in Arizona, who said it is just such a subject that his group is addressing in encouraging new people into racing. I realised, though of course I already knew it, that perception in this sport is everything, because we are dealing with livestock, and an upcoming generation where animals are equal.

Eric O’Keefe’s US viewpoints were eloquent and interesting, observations made on a North American industry clugged with controversy, drugs and bad press. Pat Bartley was a newspaperman, had sharp, witty insight into the Australian game that the audience absolutely loved. We were an interesting lot, representing four different facets of the sport, and as we handed the floor over to the second panel, I hoped we had served up food for thought.

In the second part of the session, Richard Cheung, Executive Director of the HKJC, stepped up with a few cool, hard facts from Happy Valley. The Chinese, seemingly, are doing it right. Food and beverage revenue was up 23%, cash betting in the Beer Garden was up 9%, both floated by an inarguable line graph that showed attendance to Happy Valley’s Happy Wednesday concept was sky high these days, and this wasn’t an annual carnival or a major race fixture. This was a midweek meeting run by a few marketing geniuses.

However, as much as this was fascinating, I had to check my excitement, because to me the Asian energy swivels around the technological innovations in racing, the gambling and the draw of the modern. It isn’t about making heroes of the horses, and that was where the Hong Kong Jockey Club presentation differed from that of Les Carlyon. Did that make it wrong? Of course not. It just made it different.

Following this, Henry Birtles stepped into the spotlight with an engaging, energetic critique of all that was wrong with horse racing, and how he proposed it could be fixed. ‘How do we hook the young?’ he asked, apologising for the analogy. ‘Television, television, television.’ Birtles spirited the conference through an insightful, positively bursting tirade on genuine global coverage. The industry, he said, was on the upgrade, while the sport was on the downgrade. ‘How do we capitalise on sporting moments’, he asked, ‘sporting moments, not racing moments?’ What he meant was that some moments in racing are greater than just the sport... Secretariat appearing on the cover of Time magazine, Black Caviar’s arousing UK campaign.

As proceedings wrapped up, much had been said and proposed, so much so that ideas and concepts buzzed in the space over my head. But applicable to all this talk of champions, and our use of and reliance on them in the modern game of horse racing, was the comment from Yasin Kadri Ekinci, of the Turkish ministry. It is dangerous, he said, to leave our sport in the hands of the next Secretariat. By that he meant in the hands of chance, for these champions are not guaranteed. I thought it was a resonating conclusion to the session, for while Black Caviar and Frankel are kicking around, racing is on easy street. What happens when such heroes are not around to save our necks?

(The incredible speeches from the Asian Racing Conference sessions will be posted on the Asian Racing Federation website. Well worth a read).

Asian Racing Conference, Istanbul

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Kuala Lumpur. It is 10.30pm local time at the airport, though my mind ticks still on the Sydney clock. I’ve had a Panadol, a very big Coca-Cola, and I’m waiting for a plane to Istanbul. Outside the glass confines of the airport, it looks still and stifling, tropical Asia at its greatest. Inside, however, the temperature varies from shockingly hot to shockingly cold, or maybe it’s just me. Three hours sleep will do that.

It is the week of the Asian Racing Conference, hosted by the city where east meets west. Istanbul. I’ve heard so much about it, its colours, age and markets. It’s sunsets. It’s not a city I would ever have had on my itinerary, for no reason other than a lack of reason to go there. But I’m halfway there, and I’m curious now, about the colours and the markets. And horse racing? Well, it’s a valid excuse to go anywhere.

I am attending the Conference as a delegate, a panelist on Thursday’s session ‘Secretariat is a movie star: Using popular culture to build bridges to a broader audience’. My expertise arrives in the shape of Peter Pan, the bulging biography I wrote on a famous racehorse. How did my book elevate horse racing to new audiences? What do I feel is the role of books in this sport of kings? I’m not sure the Asian Racing Federation, when I was invited, realised that I could motor on about this subject until the cows come home.

The Istanbul conference is the 34th for the Asian Racing Federation, inaugurated in 1960 and currently patronised by 22 nations from Australia and New Zealand to Bahrain, Japan and Mongolia. The concept is immense, and not one I fully understand just yet. But from my first experience so far, modernity is high on its agenda. The fact that ‘popular culture’ is a plenary session on the program at all demonstrates not just the support for racing books and films, but the Federation’s intentions to recognise their importance in moving horse racing. That’s good, especially good since I have another book on the way.

Conference proceedings begin on Wednesday, three solid days of racing folk talking racing. The sessions, outside of mine, include ‘Racing and wagering in the 3.0 era’, ‘Rewriting the rule books: reform and the rules of racing in the 21st Century’, and ‘Expanding racing’s global footprint’. There seems to be a futuristic theme going on, an effort to discuss the expansion and improvement of the game. There is also a session called ‘Leaders in the field of racing, wagering and breeding (I’m quite curious about this one).

Istanbul is an exotic and exciting venue for this event, not least because of its creeping importance in European/Asian racing. The Turkish Jockey Club seems to be trying very hard to propel itself, and Valiefendi Racecourse, onto the stage of big hitters. The 2012 Asian Racing Conference will be its sole opportunity to dazzle.

Is Roger Federer Like Sea The Stars?!

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Think about it for a moment. The men’s final of the 2012 Wimbledon tournament was like a horse race. There was Andy Murray, snatching an early lead with the first set. As the field settled in running, the seasoned, older horse began to close. Roger Federer drew alongside the front-runner in the second set, drawing away in the third. By the fourth and final set he had kicked clear of Murray, disposing of his rival without too much sweat, his stamina and class prevailing in this elite, Gr1 championship.

It was the witching hour in Sydney when all this was going on, well into 3am on a Monday morning. There I was, pretending tennis was like horse racing, the Twitter community feeding me a constant stream of opinions. I decided to contribute. ‘If Roger Federer was a racehorse, he’d be Sea The Stars.’

A river of retweets and replies arrived on my timeline, the strange analogy gathering fans. Dan H (@bonoman7628) responded that Murray needed the tongue tie next up to stop him from choking, that he needed blinkers to block out his steely, straight-faced dam up in the grandstand. To me, however, Andy Murray was Juddmonte sprinter Bated Breath, perennial bridesmaid of the Gr1 class (though in appearance and attitude he was more like a Shetland pony). Murray was always thereabouts, but like Bated Breath he just couldn’t get his nose in front at the winning post.

Federer, on the other hand, was the perfect racehorse, the Sea The Stars of tennis. Seasoned now, he was a 17-times Gr1 (Grand Slam) winner, rated highest on Timeform (world tennis rankings) yet again. Like Sea The Stars, he was neat and graceful, ability simply spilling from his action. He wasn’t flashy or arrogant, just got the job done nicely. And, just as Sea The Stars had been, Federer was famously sound.

The comparison got me thinking about the rest of the tennis battalion.

If Federer was Sea The Stars, Nadal had to be Frankel. Undefeated record aside (it was just foolish to think a tennis player could go unbeaten), Frankel and Nadal were both bullish and flashy. They had action that could stop traffic, and there was little that could go with them when they were traveling at their top. Yes, Nadal had to be Frankel. Even in looks, they were sort of similar.

Djokovich stumped me. Here was a brilliant racehorse that was very forgettable, perhaps a Duke Of Marmalade, a magificent five-time Gr1 winner but not a Frankel or a Sea The Stars. Serena Williams, was she Black Caviar, all that song and story in the rear-end, the motor that took up entire camera shots? And Lleyton Hewitt, surely he was Australian old-timer Mustard, still on the circuit without rhythm or reason.

The Federer-Murray final was dashing enough, but it was even more dashing when my imagination turned it into a match race. The Twitter response to the concept was fascinating, begging the question: what racehorses do you think are kicking around the tennis world? Are we obsessed, us racing boffins? Can we not get enough of our sport without morphing it into another one? Then again, what fun is a blog if you can’t propose the ridiculous.

The Lure Of The Coral Eclipse

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Horse racing. It’s the thrill of the chase, the blood and thunder of the contest. It’s the two minutes and some when magnificent speedsters come together for the shortest space of time. It’s the glory of the fastest, the strongest. And sometimes, one race is all it takes to remind us of all the above. This flat season so far, it was the Coral-Eclipse.

Up until yesterday morning, the 2012 renewal of the Coral-Eclipse was shaping like the most scintillating race of the season. Yes, we’d had Frankel in the Lockinge and the Queen Anne a few weeks ago, and yes he’d been outstanding. But no, the races hadn’t been competitive. Yes, we’d had Black Caviar trot through 21 simple victories here in Australia, but no, they hadn’t been competitive either. Frankel and Caviar had done a Phar Lap, making the game all about them. And then neither horse declared for the Coral-Eclipse, and the flood gates opened. So You Think, Farhh, Bonfire, Monterosso, Nathaniel. It was delicious.

The betting scales tipped between So You Think, the rockstar, and Farhh, unluckily tangled in running during the Prince of Wales at Royal Ascot. It was looking like a proper rematch. Then the rains came in England (or, more like, kept coming) and the coin arrived for Nathaniel. By yesterday morning Australia time, there were three horses at the pick for the Coral-Eclipse. Here was glorious competition, I had missed it. Not one horse demolishing favouritism, but two, even three, at the highest tier.

But racing is a funny game, plump with highs and lows. The sky fell when So You Think was withdrawn yesterday. The shoulders of Twitter’s racing community sagged like overpacked shopping bags. My timeline was jammed with messages of regret... ‘the light has gone from the race’, ‘sad that we will not be seeing So You Think’. Was it regret because we wouldn’t be witnessing the rockstar run, or regret that the contest had become a lot less interesting? Probably both, though the latter read loud and clear to me.

Procession events like Frankel and Black Caviar are well and good (saviors even, I’ve been told), but racing needs the thrill of a well-spread race, a contest at the highest level for which the winner can only be predicted, not known. Horses that are not odds-on, races upon which mortgages do not rest. The Coral-Eclipse reminded me of that this week. I felt the simmering excitement at the field, everyone’s measurement of the surface, the umming and ahhing of race records. I’ll be shot for saying so, but are we a little Frankel weary, a little Black Caviar weary?

Without So You Think, the Coral-Eclipse is certainly less exciting. It is the almost-race-of-the-season now, though that’s taking nothing from the field that remains. Farhh, undefeated in three starts until he ran into So You Think. Monterosso, last start winner of the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Nathaniel, defending King George winner. Crackerjack King, no slouch. Bonfire, the boom three-year-old were it not for Camelot. And then there’s the old favourites of English racing, Twice Over and Sri Putra. An excellent field, and just what the doctor ordered.

The Coral-Eclipse is magnificent every year. Some of its winners have slid on to great things, and this year may well be no different. But for me, the race is a strong breeze in the current season, a breath of fresh air if you will in a climate of dodging him, dodging her, protection of undefeated records. A reminder of horse racing at its grass roots. The simple game. A contest.

Sea The Stars - A Star By Name

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I remember him well. A solid bay, not a splash of white on him anywhere. He had clean black legs and broad shoulders, a plain face that was probably forgettable. But his action, that was unforgettable. In the final three furlongs of his races he was a greyhound, ears pinched and pressed flat against his neck, nostrils wider than the Irish Sea. He was sharp on his feet, acceleration like a Modena 360, and he had more pedigree than the halls of Kensington Palace. He was, of course, Sea The Stars.

His name has sprung up countlessly this season because of Frankel. In 2009, when Sea The Stars bowed out on the grandest stage of them all (the Arc de Triomphe), we thought, professed even, that we would never see his like again. In nine starts, he won eight straight, his sole loss coming in his debut run. He won the Guineas, the Derby, the Coral-Eclipse, the Juddmonte, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Arc. His yellow and purple colours became a trademark in the 2008-2009 racing seasons. You just had to look for them on Mick Kinane’s crouched, clever torso and there he was, Sea The Stars cleaning up the field with neat, Nos-like gears.

Last year I sat on my laurels about claiming Frankel the greatest I’d seen because I couldn’t get past Sea The Stars. Between August 2008 and October 2009, the solid bay had won every time he had set foot on turf. He was unbeatable. Fame And Glory, Mastercraftsman, Rip Van Winkle, Youmzain... each of them had fallen at the Sea The Stars altar. He had won the elite races of the game, and he had won the Derby. But then Frankel won the Queen Anne by 11 withering lengths and I thought, okay then. That will do it.

The Sea The Stars package wasn’t just about wins on the board, though they were deep and meaningful (he was one of only two horses since Nijinsky to win the Guineas-Derby double). The bay colt was a son of Urban Sea, the 1993 Arc winner. It made him a half-brother to the impossibly brilliant Galileo, the Gr1 winner Black Sam Bellamy, along with US Gr1 winner My Typhoon and Listed winner Wonder Of Wonders. Urban Sea was made of purple stuff, a broodmare who is chalked in the same list as Fall Aspen, Eight Carat, Somethingroyal. Whenever Sea The Stars raced, it was impossible to forget his pedigree. He just had it all.

With Frankel, Sea The Stars has fallen into a background as the current beau rapes all and sunder around him. It’s almost a shame because Frankel is outstanding, more outstanding than anything we’ve ever seen, but he has skipped over two of the great European tests - the Derby and the Arc. Were there distance concerns there, or attempts to protect his unbeaten record? Both? In any case, there were no such cries with Sea The Stars. He was a classic horse who devoured the classic contests, and it was unique to witness.

Comparisons are all we have in horse racing sometimes, the tools of measurement when it comes to past greats and current greats. Probably, Frankel would defeat Sea The Stars over 10f (I am convinced that only Secretariat, on level terms, would demolish Frankel). But the imposing, rubbery Frankel would find it hard to shake Sea The Stars who was fast, efficient and lethal in a race finish. Certainly, I can’t think of any horse in my lifetime that could give Frankel a hard time... other than this fellow.

He was a horse of a lifetime, a horse of a generation as race caller Jim McGrath called him (it just happened that another one came along not two years later). Sea The Stars was like the kid at school that had everything - blueblood pedigree, wealthy owner, devastating ability on the race track. He was exactly what John Oxx said he was, ‘the point to which thoroughbred breeding, after 300 years, [had] arrived’. He still is.