Premier Racing: you cannot have failed to see those words mentioned recently as the sport looks to highlight all that is great and good.
For those who need a reminder, Premier Racing launched on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham. Weather permitting, there will be 170 Premier Racedays this year and the BHA’s aim is to showcase when the best horses are running.
Inevitably, there has been cynicism and criticism. Some would have you believe this the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig and it won’t make a jot of difference to solving problems such as small field sizes or drawing in a new generation of fans.
At Cheltenham on January 1, for instance, it would not have been clear to a casual spectator that Premier Racing — with prize money boosted — had started. But you also had to question whether knowing or not would have added to the enjoyment of a brilliant afternoon.
‘The 170 Premier Racedays planned for 2024 reflect a significant investment by the sport,’ said Julie Harrington, the BHA’s chief executive. ‘These are fixtures proposed by the racecourses which meet strict criteria, including around prize money and race quality.
The Epsom Derby is one of four races in the calendar that deserves undivided attention
‘The objective is to encourage more, better-quality horses to be bred, trained, owned and raced in Britain. The sport has agreed putting on high-quality, valuable racing is the way to achieve this.’
Perhaps. The word ‘Premier’, however, indicates elite. Racing has some magical, historical contests that should be capable of holding their own in the news agenda and — with a bit of daring and ruthlessness — Premier Racing could be transformed to really mean something.
Take the Epsom Derby. This is the ultimate race for a thoroughbred, the helter-skelter contours of the course requiring speed, stamina, balance, class and a sound mind. It is an incredible event and is watched worldwide.
But on Saturday June 1 — when this year’s Classic is held — Epsom must battle for space with six other fixtures: Doncaster, Musselburgh and Lingfield, plus jump racing at Hexham, Worcester and Stratford.
There is also the small matter of the Champions League final being held 20 miles north of the course at Wembley that evening. It may involve Manchester City or Arsenal but it won’t matter who plays. It will command huge attention.
It was the case last June, too. The first all-Manchester FA Cup final dictated that Auguste Rodin set off on his gallop to immortality at 1.30pm.
It was a ridiculously early start, robbing us of the build-up and drama it deserved.
Those who were on the Downs felt everything went flat thereafter. Derby day should reach a crescendo, not pop early like a champagne cork. How could this magnificent spectacle be anti-climactic?
The Derby is one of four races in the calendar that deserves undivided attention, the others being the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Randox Grand National and the Ascot Gold Cup. These events will feature in evening news bulletins.
But consider this: when Galopin Des Champs is trying to retain the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March, there will be meetings at Ffos Las and Fakenham; on the day of the Grand National, they will also race at Chepstow and Newcastle, as well as Chelmsford, Yarmouth and Wolverhampton.
Gold Cup day at Ascot in June will face competition from four other meetings
On Gold Cup day at Ascot in June there will be cards at Chelmsford, Ripon, Wolverhampton and Lingfield. It’s crackers. There is no other football competing for your attention on the night of the Champions League final, so why can’t racing be the same?
If this observer had the chance he would not only give these races single-billing but — in the case of the Derby — go one step further and move the day it is staged. There is always going to be a big game on the first weekend of June and racing should counter it.
What would be wrong with moving the Derby to its traditional first Wednesday in June? Would there be a negative impact on attendance? It’s doubtful. Schools are usually on half-term then, so there is a fine opening to tap into a new audience.
The BHA should not be shot down at the first attempt when they try something different but nor should they be afraid to be revolutionary. Premier Racing should signify when the best are in action — like those four days that stand above all others.
Sunday night meetings? Give jockeys a break
A spin-off from Premier Racing is the trial of six Saturday-morning and six Sunday-evening meetings, the first of which took place at Wolverhampton last weekend.
Callum Shepherd rode the first winner but his unhappiness at being at Dunstall Park, with the temperature plummeting and family plans having been shelved, were obvious.
He made it clear in an interview with Sky Sports Racing that he — and his colleagues — were not happy to be there.
Then why ride, many will ask. The answer is simple: racing is a cut-throat world and saying no to an owner or a trainer once will mean, most likely, that a jockey — the majority of whom are freelances — will never be given a second invitation. Someone will always be willing to say yes.
Jockey Callum Shepherd took little joy from being at Wolverhampton on Sunday night
‘We can’t plan anything,’ Hayley Turner told Mail Sport last autumn. ‘If you get off a horse because you want to go and do something fun, you won’t get that ride back. The amount of weddings, christenings, barbecues and parties that you miss… You just have to say no to invitations all the time. It’s difficult.’
It shouldn’t be. Everyone deserves time to escape the pressure cooker and Sunday evenings should be sacred for those in racing.
Financial incentives have been offered to stable staff and jockeys to ride at these meetings, but is it worth it?
It must be hoped this experiment doesn’t become permanent.