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Wednesday, 24 October, 2018

Let's hope the end is in sight for Sandown's dual finishing posts

The Thursday column

The bet365 Gold Cup field pass the stands at Sandown
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If you were building a new racecourse there are various things you would be sensible to avoid doing, such as having two winning posts roughly 25 yards apart. That would be silly and potentially confusing, wouldn’t it?

Yet that’s exactly what the otherwise wonderful Sandown has and it would be one of life’s small wins if this fine racecourse could have a long, hard think about whether it needs two, or whether it would be doing its customers and armchair viewers a favour by settling for one just like everyone else does.

First of all, there has to be a reason why they have two and here it is, as clearly explained to me this week by Sandown’s admirable head of racing Andrew Cooper. Because the chase course and the Flat and hurdles course do not run parallel to one another they each have their own winning line.

If they didn’t, and they shared the Flat and hurdles course one, it would mean there was a difference in the distance to the line from one side of the final fence to the other.

What I don’t get, though, is the idea that it matters enough to warrant two winning lines. In fact I would go further than that and say if that’s the reason why they invite confusion among racegoers and jockeys they should rip one of the winning posts down as soon as possible and stick it on eBay.

In a sport in which runners are routinely allowed to set off strewn across a good quarter of a furlong, when rails adjustments mean even bigger gaps are added to or lopped off the official distance of a race just like that, and going descriptions are often a work of fantasy, it strikes me as an extremely tolerable trade-off to lose a winning post for the small price of a once-in-a-blue-moon hard-luck story of a chaser losing a race because it had a few yards further to cover from the last due to its jockey opting to jump the right-hand part of it.

I have reached a stage whereby I cannot watch a Sandown finish without a concern that I am certain to use the wrong post and will therefore convince myself I have won only to find my horse gets picked up on the way to the actual winning line, which is the second one.

All sorts of finishing stretches have some pretty wonky stuff going on - I give you the chase courses at Ludlow and Fakenham as Exhibits A and B - and I cannot believe Sandown would regret opting for a single post, which would also enable them to use a mown strip to make the finish even clearer, which they cannot do now because two mown strips would look mad.

Cooper is not wedded to the two-sticks format and says he would be prepared to junk one if it was felt it would reduce confusion and not create problems in the closing stages of chases, and that is good to hear.

He says he inherited the current layout when he joined the course and points out he introduced measures to provide greater clarity the last time a jockey affected a race by stopping riding too early around then years ago, chiefly the removal of the fluorescent orange lollipop from whichever post is not in use.

But there is still something there. It’s the mirror and its casing they use for photo finishes so there is always that nagging doubt that you are looking at the wrong one.

Sandown has few problems. It is a great racecourse. And it could be argued its main drawback is what is actually the third winning post - the one for the five-furlong course, which is way over in the middle of the course because you couldn’t create a spur for the minimum trip unless you arranged for a road to be covered and closed, chopped down a few trees and ruined a hole or two on the adjacent golf course.

But there is an easy and less drastic way to make the Esher course even better and that is to ditch the first of the two winning posts and end any possible doubt among jockeys, spectators and viewers which is which.


Approachable O'Brien a delight to see 

The only thing that amazed me more than the outcome was the casual acceptance of the outcome. If you missed it, the Racing Post tweeted a poll this week asking people whether they prefer Flat or jump racing.

Of the 3,740 people who responded, 71 per cent went for the jumps.

Between now and the General Election next month you will hear about opinion polls that tell us this and that.

These polls, which the media tend to treat with reverence, are often made up of little more than a thousand canvassed opinions so the Racing Post poll, with roughly three times the volume of views, looks pretty sturdy.

I tried to factor in a timing issue, and I suppose it could be argued jumps fans are likely to be in good heart after the delights of Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown.

Against that, the poll ran over a fascinating Guineas weekend, which must have got Flat followers fully aroused.

Overall, I’m happy to believe there is a massive difference in popularity between the two codes, one I had sensed but not to such an exaggerated degree.

This echoes Racing Post circulation trends. A run-of-the-mill Monday in January will outsell an equivalent day in high summer, although a decade ago that position would have been reversed with Flat enjoying greater interest than the winter version.

Two commonly voiced criticisms of Flat racing are that the horses do not hang around long enough for us to get to love them and the human participants are, in general, less approachable and open.

While there are loads of extremely friendly, helpful Flat jockeys and trainers it is probably true that if you picked an average jumps trainer or rider and an average Flat one and rang them up you’d fancy your chances of getting more a tune out of the jumps professionals.

At the very top of the Flat tree you would have to say the likelihood of Ryan Moore ever overcoming his allergy to microphones and notebooks recedes by the year. He might have had the occasional mildly rough deal from the media, including us, but mostly he is treated with respect for the supreme talent he is, and it is a shame for racing fans who would love to hear more from him that he is so reluctant to back up his magnificent deeds with words.

But the man who provides him with so many of his best moments, Aidan O’Brien, is becoming increasingly media friendly, and the sport is so much better off as a result.

Last weekend, as this incredible man completed yet another Guineas double, he opened up like never before and his prolonged stint with the ITV Racing team after Winter had won the fillies’ classic can only have heightened the admiration viewers already had for him.

He was there chatting away for ages, to the extent that I half wondered whether, given another minute, he’d be reading out the latest betting for the next race.

Flat racing needs its stars to show their human side and O’Brien, who is more at home with horses than newshounds, is doing his bit and then some. It is terrific to see.

Aidan O'Brien is becoming more media friendly


Football writers making mockery of award

There was an amusing exchange on the radio the other day between Ray Wilkins and the Sun’s Neil Custis, sparked by a disagreement over whether Marcus Rashford’s free kick for Manchester United against Celta Vigo was a cracking strike or a shocker by the Galician club’s keeper.

Wilkins questioned the value of Custis’s football knowledge owing to the scribe’s lack of a professional playing career, which caused the Sun hack to erupt in fury.

Normally I’d defend the journalist because it is clearly not essential to have played football for a living to be able to comment intelligently about the game, as many media folk have proved.

But it’s quite hard to claim Britain’s foremost football writers are all totally on the ball based on some of the players who received votes for the writers’ association’s player of the year for 2016-17.

Those who were judged the star of season included Sergio Aguero, Philippe Coutinho, Jermain Defoe, Ben Foster, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Anthony Knockaert and Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Those are either highly dubious or downright laughable choices and show a small-minded geographical bias that completely devalues this over-publicised award.

I have reached a stage whereby I cannot watch a Sandown finish without a concern that I am certain to use the wrong post
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