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Sunday, 18 November, 2018

Going concerns mean no easy ride for clerks of the course

The Thursday column

Interviewing the beaten jockeys at Cheltenham was a welcome innovation
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If you can’t have good ideas of your own, steal them from other people. ITV Racing did both at Cheltenham on Sunday, experimenting with a good idea they had thought up and nicking one from Australian racing coverage.

First, their original innovation. For the three-runner Racing Post Arkle Trial they assigned a horse to regular commentator Richard Hoiles and gave one each of the others to Mick Fitzgerald and Luke Harvey.

So, rather than four minutes of Hoiles gently reciting the names of the three runners and then picking up the pace as they turned for home, we had a series of in-running bulletins focused on each horse in turn.

I thought it worked really well and brought a new perspective to a race, while other viewers decided they preferred the traditional approach and dismissed it as a gimmick. I hope ITV repeat the exercise soon.

The stolen idea was to interview the jockeys of the beaten horses as they made their way back into the weighing room, something that is a standard offering in Australia and works really well, with the jockeys primed to say a few words as they pass the reporter.

It is a different experience to the usual post-race chat viewers get from jockeys when only the winners are asked to share their thoughts and they duly oblige with breathless expressions of delight.

Beaten jockeys have no congratulatory kisses from an elated owner or a share of the winning prize to calculate as they carry their saddle back to the warmth of the weighing room and therefore roving micsmith Oli Bell faced a different challenge to get them to say a few words.

But generally they did, and the short burst of reaction - "just ran out of petrol up the hill," "clouted the open ditch," etc - worked well.

The most dramatic quote came from Brian Hughes as he passed by, grim-faced, after managing to push Cloudy Dream into a remote second place behind Fox Norton. "The track should be ashamed of themselves," he declared. "That’s horrendous ground."

Hughes was unhappy with what he saw as excess watering and his stinging verdict drew an immediate and robust response from Cheltenham clerk Simon Claisse.

Claisse’s defence, based around the need to water to produce safe ground for the October meeting and the sheer volume of rain that fell after Friday’s fixture, will doubtless have been warmly applauded by his fellow clerks of the course, who are becoming the equivalent of Premier League referees in terms of the amount of criticism they attract.

It seems everyone else knows best whenever there is a change of going, and I confess I sometimes fall into the trap of believing I am qualified to pass judgement on the state of the ground even though I am barely able to cut my front lawn, which is about the size of a snooker table.

Clerks, by contrast, have presumably studied turf husbandry extensively and acquired intimate knowledge of the huge expanse of land they are in charge of tending, so one has to wonder why we all feel so well-equipped to tell them how to do their job.

I believe errors do take place but they are fewer and further between than we perceive. There remain too many cases of ground only being given its true status after a race has been run, presumably because there is a fear of scaring off runners if an extreme of going is reported before the horseboxes have left the yards, and that is something that requires monitoring from the BHA.

But the one thing us armchair clerks have to remember is that the people who actually do the job are at the mercy of weather forecasters, which must make them permanently uneasy given how inaccurate climatic predictions often are.


More by Bruce Millington

No reason to feel blue about Azzurri absence

Clattenburg chat provides fascinating insight

Galway students show there is no need for dress codes

The writing's on the wall for punting superstitions

Moore insight would delight racing fans


It is annoying to back a horse on the assumption that a race will take place on a particular surface only for an unexpected downpour to change things significantly.

While it therefore makes sense to wait until nearer the off before committing cash, in the case of Saturday racing particularly, the morning is the prime time for getting the best-value prices.

Like any group who have a key role in keeping the racing wheel turning, clerks of the course are not perfect, but they are also not as woeful as the current levels of criticism they receive suggest.


Too early to dismiss De Bruyne's PFA rivals

As well as constantly looking to hunt down good prices, punters need to keep an eye out for bad ones that may offer profit either through bets on market rivals or an exchange lay. And I think I have found a really bad price.

With the usual Trevor Brooking-style self-deprecating remarks about my tipping ability, my opinion is that Kevin De Bruyne is incredibly short to be named the PFA Player of the Year this season.

It could obviously happen. The Citizens’ schemer has been outstanding in the first three months of the season, scoring dazzling goals, opening up rival defences with amazingly precise passes and generally running matches from start to finish.

But the key point there is that we have had only three months of evidence in which to judge the best performer. The votes will not be cast for another four months and much can change in that time.

Players rarely sustain periods of form as scintillating as the Belgian is showing. And the way the PFA award is judged tends to be affected by a recency bias that historically points to winter rather than autumn form being crucial.

Footballers are not as dim as cynics like to portray them but like anyone they tend to place disproportionate importance on the things they have seen most recently. So there is still ample scope for another player to make a meaningful imprint on the minds of his peers and dislodge De Bruyne from the mantle the betting market seems certain will be his.

I recall, for instance, Ryan Giggs winning the accolade in 2008-09 almost entirely because he was a golden oldie and because he scored a mazy goal at West Ham in February.

Nor is it vital to play for the champions. The last three recipients have but none of the previous five did so the door is open for someone who does not wear light blue to lift the trophy.

So if not De Bruyne, who? You could lay him at around 4-5 in a relatively illiquid Betfair exchange market, but this might be an opportunity to shoot for the stars.

Harry Kane is a clear second favourite, followed by Gabriel Jesus and Mohamed Salah. But lurking further down the lists at between 33-1 and 40-1 is Paul Pogba, who holds massive appeal on the basis that every time he takes a throw-in correctly the world swoons.

He was monumentally disappointing last season but showed improved form in eight games before an injury sidelined him until last weekend.

Now he is back, assuming he can show some of the form that convinced United to write Juventus such a huge cheque for him, there is every chance his army of adoring fans will coo over him to such an extent that he gains the necessary votes to be player of the year.

The likeliest winner of the award as things stand is De Bruyne but with so much football to be played before the votes are cast he seems a chronically short price.


Wind-op transparency may help punters land a blow

Well done to the BHA for its announcement this week that punters will now be able to see when a horse has had a wind operation. Less well done to those who oppose the decision to make this information available to the betting public.

Trainers have warned these procedures don’t always work and that it is therefore pointless to let people know they have taken place; owners have complained that they are the ones forking out for the veterinary work to be done but punters get the info free, and, worst of all, some snobby punters say they are good at working out for themselves when a wind op has taken place so they don’t want to lose this edge.

I despair at these attitudes. Few things offend and enrage a punter more than a trainer gloating after their horse has won by half the track that they had its wind done before the race.

As for whether or not they are a proven way of improving a horse’s performance, the Racing Post will be running a daily table detailing the record of horses who have had these operations so punters will be able to judge their overall effectiveness before they have a bet.


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Hughes was unhappy with what he saw as excess watering and his verdict drew an immediate and robust response from Cheltenham clerk Simon Claisse
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