Bruce Millington: celebrate the range of racing options rather than cutting back
Punters enjoy being free to focus on what they want
A good rule of life is that you should not make a habit of disagreeing with Patrick Veitch, that extremely shrewd and intelligent professional punter who talks far more sense than nonsense.
However, I found myself doing just that, not once but multiple times, first as I read in the Racing Post last week his views on the British racing fixture list and then when he articulated his thoughts on the subject in an interview with Nick Luck on Sunday.
If you struggle to find room in your life for debates about how many race meetings should take place every year and are therefore oblivious to Veitch’s opinions and the reactions they have sparked, here is a brief summary …
Veitch, author of one of the best racing and betting books I have read in Enemy Number One, thinks there is too much racing and that he and other punters cannot keep up with it all. He also thinks racing is suffering as a consequence of what he describes as the bloated fixture list and that the sport would be better off staging fewer races.
Yet what he sees as a nirvana of racing benefiting from its fans and followers giving more focus to fewer races is viewed elsewhere within the sport as a nightmare scenario that would see income fall, owners walk away due to fewer opportunities, and trainers, jockeys and other racing professionals losing their livelihoods in significant numbers.
And unless a way is found to end the Covid-19 crisis, it is a scenario that could become reality in the coming years.
So who is right? Who would actually benefit from there being less racing? Mark Johnston agrees with Veitch. Braveheart says what we are providing is “mostly dross”.
He, like Veitch, is wrong. It is perfectly simple. If you don’t want to follow every last Catterick claimer and Southwell seller you don’t have to. You have the choice. Follow as much or as little of it as you like.
Veitch presumably hankers for a time when you could keep tabs on every race without needing to devote an unacceptably large part of your life to it, but how many others are like him?
Punters come in many different types and I am not sure the segment that shares Veitch’s particular desire is big enough or valuable enough to warrant culling fixtures to any great degree.
I certainly do not feel there is not enough racing, and I’d be surprised if many people did. But I’d rather have more than I can digest than not enough. If I look at the cards in the morning and see there are six meetings I will have a quick skim through them and focus on the ones that interest me the most.
And if I want to leave it alone altogether I will do that, and take advantage of the convenience of racingpost.com to catch up in the evening or the following morning.
Veitch points to racing’s declining share of UK betting, but that is a basic consequence of the explosion of betting on football and other sports. As long as racing’s annual turnover is not in decline, which it isn’t but probably would be if all of a sudden opportunities to bet on horses were removed, that is all that matters.
Veitch also claims there is a lack of variety in the racing programme, and refers to “an endless diet of low-grade handicaps”, but I don’t see that at all.
Yes, there are some races of that description that I do not find particularly stimulating, but on any given day you are likely to find something to interest you whether you prefer jumps, Flat or all-weather racing, handicaps or novice races, big fields or small.
It is one of British racing’s main attributes that it caters for its various fans so well. If you are only interested in Saturdays and midweek festivals we are lucky to have ITV Racing to offer a perfect, free, terrestrial service.
And if your interest is limited to gaff tracks, jumps, all-weather or sprint handicaps it is easy to find what you are looking for and to discard the rest. Long may that last.
The fixture list is, of course, ultimately governed by the size of the horse population, and with the effects of Covid-19 widely predicted to shrink the number of people with the disposable income to own horses it could well mean meetings will diminish organically in the coming years, although given how many horses are currently being balloted out of races we are certainly not at that point yet.
Fewer fixtures would undoubtedly mean fewer trainers and jockeys were able to make it pay and even that some racecourses would have to close, none of which sounds remotely positive to me.
As for the notion that if there were fewer cards, the national dailies would carry more racing stories, thus boosting general interest, I’m afraid that is a rather romantic image.
And it is hard to know why Veitch thinks on one hand that a single racing channel would have obvious advantages in terms of making it easier to follow the action but then advocates a separate channel for Irish racing.
That is not to say this would be one of the rare occasions when I am right and Veitch is wrong. Nobody really knows whether his plan would make racing a better sport because we have not tried it.
Then again, we have had plenty of periods when, due to bad weather and indeed the early weeks after lockdown, there was less racing so perhaps data from those spells might be useful to see whether it is indeed a case of the fewer the better.
It is, though, hard to believe a smaller fixture list could create a healthier, more prosperous racing industry. It might enable some punters to feel like they are able to keep tabs on form more easily, and it could create more liquidity in exchange pools.
But it would come at a cost in terms of fewer opportunities for owners to experience the thrill of having a winner, more trainers and jockeys having to pack it in and do something else and more of our racecourses, each so special and each so important in terms of giving British racing its wonderful variety, becoming defunct.
I don’t want that, particularly not just so that a specific type of punter no longer feels there is more racing than they are comfortable with.
I love football but there are more matches televised than I can watch. I love films but there are more released than I can sit through. I love travel but there are more locations I want to visit than I have time to visit.
So I prioritise. I pick and choose. But more than anything I give thanks that I have so many options.
Why the long delay in getting subs on the pitch?
One of the few benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic was that I developed a sense of perspective and no longer found myself getting stupidly annoyed by comparatively irrelevant things.
But in recent weeks my ability to be irritated so irrationally has started to return, as I noticed when I was watching a footballer preparing to come on at the weekend.
The commentator alerted us to the fact that this player was about to be brought on and we saw him with his tracksuit off.
But it was literally ten minutes before he actually entered the field of play, because while he had his tracksuit off he was still not remotely properly kitted out. He was not wearing his shirt, he was lazily wrapping tape around his ankles and he had not put on his shinpads.
What is it with footballers and shinpads? If a junior or Sunday league player wants shinpads they will buy something that properly protects the front of the lower leg, with a nice wide area of moulded plastic, and a comfortable toeless sock and rear strap to anchor it safely.
Professional footballers, on the other hand, are happy to put something roughly the size of a wallet down their sock. They clearly feel wearing safety equipment akin to that worn by a wicketkeeper would affect mobility, but given the amount of stoppages caused by players incurring painful but ultimately not serious shin knocks perhaps there should be rules on minimum shinpad sizes.
One thing that’s for sure is that if I was a manager all my subs would be ready to come on within 30 seconds of being told to strip off. It is completely unprofessional to get the nod from the gaffer and then taking longer than the average bride to get yourself ready.
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