Godolphin in strife as Bin Suroor decides to reveal internal feud
After drawing a Derby and Oaks blank, Godolphin continue to be without a British Classic success since Dawn Approach captured the 2013 2,000 Guineas. That is serious. Even more serious is the remarkable situation being played out at the very top of Sheikh Mohammed's superpower stable.
It is now 22 years since Saeed Bin Suroor completed an Epsom Classic double with Lammtarra and Moonshell. Over the subsequent years, the four-time champion trainer has been an uncontroversial figure. Yet when speaking to the Racing Post last week he blew the lid off the major deterioration in relations between himself and Sheikh Mohammed's top racing aide John Ferguson.
Having been in charge of Godolphin since February, 2014, Ferguson was given the title of chief executive in December, 2015, reporting he had been instructed to give the global behemoth "a kick in the belly".
Bin Suroor has since done some kicking himself, revealing that after a 2016 campaign that plainly left him angry and exasperated, he has from this year reported to only one man.
"Now Sheikh Mohammed makes the decisions at Stanley House, nobody else," said Bin Suroor.
"I like things this way. Last year it didn't suit me at all. Everything was top-class in past times, from the work-riders to the people in the office. Now I'm trying to build that up again for the future. The last three years without Simon Crisford has not been the same, has not been easy."
Bin Suroor then went on to say plenty, none of it by mistake. He spoke of how frustrated he had been to have James Doyle foisted upon him as retained rider - without being critical of Doyle himself - admitting: "I was not happy...it was very hard to do my job properly."
He separated his own yard from that of Charlie Appleby by describing his base as "the main Godolphin stable". He then bemoaned his latest two-year-old intake, extremely backward relative to the collection entrusted to Appleby, stating: "It is a disaster. I can't train them, have no chance to run them. The system is not quite great this year."
The rumour heard on racecourses is the relationship between Godolphin's senior trainer and Godolphin's senior executive has completely broken down.
Ferguson – whose son, James, is Appleby's assistant – seemingly has little direct input into plans for the horses trained by Bin Suroor, in whose yard he is thought to be an infrequent visitor at most. In the Epsom paddock during the Derby preliminaries there was also no obvious contact between the two men.
Tension at the top of high-profile organisations is not unusual. What is extraordinary is Bin Suroor is so willing to make that tension public and sufficiently confident in his own relationship with Sheikh Mohammed to do so.
To the outsider it would appear to be a high-risk strategy. It must also be an unprecedented situation, one that surely cannot be sustainable.
Godolphin was built on a team ethos. The organisation has evolved in recent years, so it much more reflects the days of old when horses raced for many different yards in the name of Sheikh Mohammed.
Where once there was maroon and white, now there is blue. However, even if the shape of the team looks different in 2017 to how it did in 1997, there is clearly right now a far from positive team ethos across Godolphin's Newmarket set-up.
One wonders what Sheikh Mohammed will do. Will he see the troubled relationship between Bin Suroor and Ferguson as creative tension or will he seek to knock heads together?
That is unclear. What is clear is Godolphin remain an awfully long way behind Coolmore in the superpower stakes, with the British Classics score since Dawn Approach being 11 to Coolmore, none to Godolphin. The current difficulties can hardly be helpful in reducing the gap between the two.
Top European-trained Coolmore and Godolphin horses since Jan 1, 2014 (based on Racing Post Ratings)
129 Australia (Coolmore, Aidan O'Brien)
125 Jack Hobbs (Godolphin, John Gosden)
125 Ribchester (Godolphin, Richard Fahey)
125 Air Force Blue (Coolmore, O'Brien)
125 Churchill (Coolmore, O'Brien)
125 Order Of St George (Coolmore, O'Brien)
124 African Story (Godolphin, Saeed Bin Suroor)
124 Prince Bishop (Godolphin, Bin Suroor)
124 Found (Coolmore, O'Brien)
124 Gleneagles (Coolmore, O'Brien
124 Highland Reel (Coolmore, O'Brien)
124 Magician (Coolmore, O'Brien)
124 The Gurkha (Coolmore, O'Brien)
ITV gives Derby a boost but more needed
Within ITV and Jockey Club Racecourses there will have been measured relief and satisfaction that the viewing audience for Saturday's Investec Derby was up on that posted by Channel 4 in 2016. Nevertheless, the figures underline much work is needed if the sport's premier Flat race is to be fully revived as a television attraction.
While there were persuasive excuses for ITV's first Grand National peak rating falling well short of Channel 4's last, it would have been decidedly uncomfortable for both racing's new broadcaster and those who sold the rights had the Derby numbers not moved in the right direction.
The BBC signed off in 2012 with an impressive peak of 3.3 million, better than average but not ridiculously so. Across Channel 4's tenure the race went down year on year, from an initial 1.9 million in 2013 to a little less than 1.4 million in 2016. Indeed, it was the desire to reverse the collapse in audiences for the Derby, Royal Ascot and Qipco British Champions Day that formed a key part of ITV's appeal during the tender process.
As such, ITV simply had to take the Derby back in an upward trajectory as it resumed coverage of the prize that during its previous association with the sport had been the jewel in its turf crown.
Derby peak audiences
2017 ITV 1.7m
2016 C4 1.4m
2015 C4 1.5m
2014 C4 1.6m
2013 C4 1.9m
2012 BBC 3.3m
2011 BBC 3.2m
2010 BBC 1.9m
2009 BBC 2.8m
2008 BBC 3.0m
2007 BBC 3.1m
2006 BBC 4.1m
It was, therefore, to be welcomed that 1.7 million watched the Derby, an increase of more than 20 per cent on 12 months ago. Moreover, the overall three-and-a-half-hour programme averaged 820,000 viewers, up 30 per cent on 2016's 628,000. Also encouraging was the 11.3 per cent audience share, which beat any attained during Channel 4's return to Epsom.
The news had been even better on Friday, when ITV's Oaks coverage hit a 1 million peak, massively up on Channel 4's 626,000 in 2016 and representative of a near 60 per cent boost. As the BBC placed the Oaks on BBC2, the fillies' Classic was also seen by more eyes than the corporation typically managed.
That's the good news. The garden is, however, not completely rosy. It is disappointing and worrying that only 1.7 million wanted to watch the Derby, an event that remains one of those listed by legislation as to be perceived as so important that it has be made available live on a free-to-air platform. It must also be noted Channel 4's 2013 rating was bigger, while 1.7 million is light years away from what the BBC generally achieved for racing.
Those who sell rights invariably talk of how viewing habits have changed, but this is less relevant in relation to sport, which is always best enjoyed as it happens, as evidenced by last week's FA Cup Final, which more people tuned into than was the case 12 months ago.
However, it is worth noting that while the Derby pulled in 1.7 million viewers, this year's Boat Race, a similarly historic part of Britain's sporting culture, drew 5.5 million people.
The Derby is once again going up not down. ITV's return to the race delivered a promising rating that can be built upon. There is, though, plenty of building work to be done.
If you enjoyed this article, read Lee Mottershead's previous column here and every Monday in the Racing Post and online with Members' Club