Thinking of flat racing conjures up images of horses with coats gleaming under golden skies and a kaleidoscope of colours from the bright silks of the jockeys to the catwalk queens of ladies’ day dazzling in the summer sun. Flat racing was made for summer months.
The Irish turf season commenced its dance through the summer at the Curragh on Sunday and conditions were the polar opposite of what the imagination created. The country is in the icy, iron grip of the beast from the east, bitter Siberian winds that have trapped us in winter when everything we know tells us it is spring. We may dream of a white Christmas but this week the Easter bunny could bring us snow as a side order with our chocolate eggs.
Sunday’s weather and conditions at the Curragh were more reminiscent of a bleak mid-winter Thursday at any jumping meeting than the summery delights that are found in Kildare at the height of the season. Admittedly last year’s flat season was blighted by the incessant deluges the weather gods inflicted upon us but shivering in the freezing parade ring on Sunday the question did arise ‘Does the flat season start too early?’
Ten days earlier I was standing in another freezing parade but chilly winds are to be expected at Cheltenham in mid-March. Next weekend I expect to be cut to the bone by icy gusts at Fairyhouse. The weather isn’t the real problem that Curragh authorities and the flat racing fraternity have to contend with. Leopardstown stages its first flat meeting of the year tomorrow and Cork’s mixed card offers southern racing fans the opportunity of enjoying live action over the Easter weekend.
However, the exciting denouement of another thrilling national hunt season is only starting. Familiar favourites and rising superstars excited everyone at Cheltenham just over a week before the flat peaked its head above the parapet. On Sunday Fairyhouse’s three day Easter meeting gets under way with the Irish Grand National and some high class Grade 1 races for the discerning racegoers’ delectation.
On Thursday the focus shifts to Aintree’s Grand National meeting and whatever views you may hold on the grueling marathon itself, there can be no dispute about the quality of the meeting and the many Grade 1 races on the menu. Cheltenham winners like Sprinter Sacre will abound and a day after the world’s most famous steeplechase the Curragh’s next flat card will lose the battle for the precious few column inches the Sunday papers reserve for racing.
Then there is Punchestown. This year’s National Hunt festival starts in four weeks’ time and if only half of the Cheltenham horses who have potential targets in Kildare turn up that week, it is still shaping up to be the most exhilarating festival for many a long year.
During these heady days over jumps what attractions can the flat offer to tempt the casual racing fan?
The Irish Classics don’t start until Guineas weekend on 25 and 26 May so there is no Group 1 action for a whole two months after the season starts. There is the possibility that Camelot may appear in the Alleged Stakes at the Curragh on 7 April but even the prospect of a three time Classic winner returning from serious illness won’t be enough to prise the acres of newsprint out of the Grand Nationals’s greedy clutches.
Building up to the Classics, there will be plenty of trial races but these don’t capture the imagination of sports fans in general unlike the build up to Cheltenham. Horse Racing Ireland and the tracks themselves may do their utmost to attract people to the meetings but the flat game has a fatal flaw that will undermine every initiative and marketing drive they come up with.
Flat racing doesn’t exist alone, it is part of a global bloodstock business and that dictates the best horses should be shipped off to the breeding sheds as soon as their talent and superiority are firmly established. For two years Frankel’s extraordinary talents frequently brought flat racing fleeting moments as the headline story on the front and backpages but these are rare. Sea The Stars, the greatest flat horse I’ve seen, was sent to stud after his stunning three year old season and that was the last we saw of his magnificence on the track.
This commercial imperative doesn’t allow people to build up a relationship with a horse in the same way that the longevity of jumping career affords fans the opportunity to follow their favourites year after year and that is a major difficulty when it comes to attracting people to meetings even when the fare is of the highest standards.
Trying to compete with jump racing is futile so why not move the start of the season back a little, say to sometime during the April lull between Fairyhouse and Punchestown?
People may argue that tradition dictates the season starts at this time but maybe it’s time tradition was tweaked. The season can still have its key races and the Irish Lincolnshire would still be the curtain raiser, only leave it a month later so a long standing flat handicap doesn’t get lost in the stampede of jumping Grade 1s at this time of year.
Expecting flat bred horses to compete to the best of their ability on ground that jumpers would relish, is a bit like looking at a game in the National Hurling league and expecting it to be as skilfull and thrilling as a championship clash in height of summer. Hurling is meant to be played when the ground is harder and the weather a bit warmer and so is flat racing. Perhaps our summers will be wetter and the ground that bit duller or maybe that elusive gleaming ball in the sky will return and bathe us all in a little warmth. The weather isn’t the main issue here, giving flat racing the space it needs to enchant a wider audience is what matters and not starting the season in the middle of a feast of top quality jumping fare would be a good place to start.