Weblog: Betting Shop Manager of the Year
Bittar's the man to deal with racing's dark shadow
THE John Smith's Grand National - 4m4f, 30 fences and 40 horses. A British institution, it inspires people from all walks of life to visit their local betting shop and try their luck in what is the nation's favourite race.
This year was no different in that sense, and what an incident-packed contest it proved, throwing up enough talking points to keep us going until next year's debut for Channel 4's racing team.
Not all of the talking points are positive, however, and a dark cloud has gathered over the showpiece event, threatening its position, and even the race itself if certain quarters are to be believed. There is no doubt that the death of two horses for the second year in succession has put a dampener on what was a fantastic race.
In 173 years of history there has never been a closer finish and, as we all waited tensely for the photo finish to be called, it felt impossible to call the winner with any degree of certainty.
In the end Daryl Jacob was victorious on 33-1 shot Neptune Collonges to give champion trainer Paul Nicholls his first National winner at the 53rd attempt. This was the first grey to win the race for over 50 years and prompted Nicholls to rejoice in the fact he had "blown Nicky Henderson out of the water!"
Katie Walsh secured the highest ever placing for a female jockey partnering the much fancied Seabass into third place and the jubilant scenes were a fantastic sight, raw human emotion at its best.
It should have been the perfect end to what was again an absolutely stunning day to work in the shop. This was my sixth Grand National as a manager for Scotbet and each year my team and I have been blown away with the sheer magnitude of the occasion.
Our town has suffered hard times in the recent past through job losses, so as the now infamous bus left with many of my regulars on Friday morning to Aintree, I must admit a fear that this would be the year that the downturn caught up with us and maybe the day might turn out to be a little flat. Unfounded as it happens - the shop saw a sizeable increase on last year's figures for both slippage and turnover.
The fact that Templegate from the Sun even napped the winner couldn't prevent this being the year that my National hoodoo was broken and the shop I was working in made a profit on the day.
The queue to place bets beforehand never seemed to shrink, but there was not a single person complaining, the atmosphere was terrific and, even as morning progressed into afternoon, the adrenaline kept pumping and bets kept flowing - wave after wave of people came, all for this one special race.
For me it is that atmosphere that makes this day above all others the most special to work on - where it is rarely about making money for the customer, but rather all about having fun.
The shop was still packed come scheduled off time and after a couple of false starts the chatting and laughing suddenly stopped. We had lots of work to catch up with, but I gave myself a few seconds to look at the faces of those who you would never normally see in a betting shop, their faces captivated by the pictures and events unfolding in front of them.
But for all the positive things to take from this race, and please don't forget that it was an incredible race, the shadow that was cast from the deaths of Gold Cup hero Synchronised and home-bred According To Pete is long and it is dark.
All connected with the horses will be devastated and the BHA have the job on their hands of conducting an investigation into how to make the race a safer event.
Already they, in conjunction with Aintree, have made modifications to fences and changed qualifying criteria for the runners and riders. It is impossible to make any sport risk free, but the fact that this is the most challenging race to win is the reason for its popularity, at peak over ten million viewers tuned in to watch the BBC's final coverage. Those ten million witnessed the deaths and for an overwhelming majority that is uncomfortable to say the least. I know I found it uncomfortable at the time and even more uncomfortable when people - who should have been celebrating picking the winner - were mournful when handing over their slips for payment.
It's not often I am stuck for words, believe me, but on reflection I do feel the need to justify our wonderful sport, whilst not belittling what happened on course on Saturday.
I do feel further changes are inevitable, but believe time should be taken and the correct changes implemented rather than just a knee-jerk reaction. That seems to be the general feeling in the shop also, but opinions vary as to what those changes should be.
From the guys I spoke to over the weekend, the majority would like to see the field reduced from 40. Tommy advocates this, along with a better controlled start - the rushing of the tape and the pace of the charge to the first fence for me validates these points.
Many, including Rob, have argued that the number of runners mean a place at the front to avoid trouble in behind is essential, citing the fact that our winner was almost brought down on more than one occasion, and the death of According To Pete was indeed for this reason.
George S is a defender of the fences and says the shortening of them will only lead to even greater speed and claims that already the pace they go off at on the first circuit is like a 5f sprint. He says that, statistically speaking, since they tried to make the race safer they have achieved the opposite, and a look deeper into the figures seems to imply this.
The mortality rate between 1990-99 was over 3 per cent, while it was under 2 per cent for 2000-10. However the last two years are over 5 per cent.
George K has message for those in favour of cancelling the race altogether. He says you cannot sanitise everything and points out that the horses are incredibly well looked after. I will sanitise some of his words, but he goes on to say about the old saying 'you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink'. He then asks why do the horses continue riderless and complete the course, in most cases jumping all of the fences, rather than taking the escape route round the side? "Because they enjoy it" he suggests, "It's what comes naturally to them."
An interesting point came from Jason who highlighted the fact that, even with a stirring finish, there was no breach of the whip rule.
I asked Allan B his views on the race and his response was a single sentence; "Very emotional and unfortunate, great race" and Joe's first thought when asked was "what a finish".
Brian R blames the media for too much negative reporting and, while I agree with him to an extent, I also feel there are issues to be addressed if the race is to continue to be viewed by the vast majority as affectionately as it is just now.
Therefore I was delighted to read Paul Bittar's comments regarding the BHA's investigation. This is a man who has gone about his business with precision and authority. When the whip rules threatened to destroy the image of horseracing he stepped in and, as head of the BHA, made decisive amendment to these rules - which now has us all talking about the racing rather than the whip.
He has now taken this issue under his wing and I hope he can work the same problem solving magic. Saturday should be remembered as one of the greatest races in National history.
Looking ahead to the Coral Scottish National now this Saturday at Ayr, what I wouldn't give right now to see all the horses home safe and sound.
I'm really looking forward to appearing on the Morning Line this Saturday morning, and it should be a wonderful day on the West Coast.
I'll speak a bit more in my next blog about that race and all the other goings on in the shop later this week, along with the latest on my (dreaded) charity skydive.