Nicholas Godfrey: Amid the doom and gloom, let’s cheer for seven days of summer heaven

Horse Racing Enable Ascot King George Frankie Dettori John Gosden
Enable and Frankie Dettori after the mare’s historic third King George win at Ascot. Photo: Qipco British Champions Series
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

Horse racing has been battered by the coronavirus catastrophe – but we’re living in a golden era on the Flat in Britain. NICHOLAS GODFREY stands and applauds

So it wasn’t to be for Goodwood’s pilot event for the return of spectators to racing. In the end the Stewards’ Cup meeting took place minus the 5,000 racegoers the most picturesque racecourse in Britain was planning to admit.

Apart from those directly involved in the action, this Saturday test card could be viewed only on telly. Cricket and snooker were the other sports similarly thwarted by circumstances entirely beyond their control, and racing duly stayed entirely behind closed doors after Boris Johnson’s government postponed its raft of changes following a spike in the COVID-19 infection rate.

Perhaps we should not have been entirely surprised in these tumultuous times. As a prime minister held in higher esteem than the current incumbent once suggested: it isn’t the end, it isn’t even the beginning of the end.

While the end of the beginning was signalled by the easing of lockdown measures, allowing the public back into sporting events was always a potentially risky development. 

Horse Racing Ascot
Earlier this year a silent Ascot lit up in blue for an NHS tribute. Picture: Ascot racecourse

However poorly the communications are being handled – and they are: just ask Britain’s Muslim community, whose Eid celebrations were muted with barely any notice – it is surely better to be safe than sorry. Much better.

Thankfully for the armchair fan, racing is a TV-friendly sport, though Ryan Moore’s assessment soon after the resumption was firmly on the mark. “It’s not ideal, is it?” he said, in his typically understated way.

No wonder MD Adam Waterworth sounded deflated

Moreover, one can only sympathise with everyone at Goodwood who had thrown such effort into ensuring the proposed trial could be conducted safely without any hitches.

No wonder managing director Adam Waterworth sounded so deflated on Friday, when he was given five minutes’ notice that Saturday’s trial wasn’t going to happen.

“I’m gutted to be honest, especially for the team,” admitted the impressive Waterworth. “Sarah Bullen, our ops manager, is 8½ months’ pregnant and she’s been an utter star, putting in all the hours in the world, and we were all ready to go.”

Just minutes before news broke that the test event would not happen, Goodwood had issued a press release detailing how complicated arrangements had been.

Horse Racing Battaash Goodwood King George
Battaash wins the King George Qatar Stakes at Goodwood – and the stands remained empty on Saturday. Photo: Racenews

“We would normally have 100,000 people on the downs during the week of the Goodwood Festival,” said Waterworth. “I can honestly say it has taken more effort from the staff at Goodwood, especially those on the operations side of the business, to pull off 5,000 people on one day.”

All for nothing, in the end – and what must be galling is that West Sussex, the county in which Goodwood is situated, is nowhere near any of the coronavirus flare-ups.

Again, though, it is hard to be critical of an overly cautious outlook, especially when one considers how racing as a whole and Cheltenham in particular were lambasted for the Festival having gone ahead in March just before the pandemic exerted its stranglehold on society.

Worse could be waiting around the corner

Still, the six-figure loss mentioned by Waterworth is hardly negligible – especially in these financially straitened times – and even worse may be just around the corner if crowds aren’t allowed back soon. 

Waterworth himself, speaking on ITV Racing, warned that racecourses may have to close if the public is not allowed back sooner rather than later and a prize-money row has ensued in Britain as racecourses cut their cloth owing to economic imperatives.

Even if such measures are inevitable to some extent with hugely diminished income, the knock-on effect on all levels of the racing industry will be unwelcome indeed.

Newmarket trainer Ed Vaughan is probably just the first well-known name to give up the unequal struggle – and the timing of his announcement, just days after he had landed the biggest success of his career with Dame Malliot in the Group 2 Princess of Wales’s Stakes at the July meeting was unsettling.

Horse Racing Mohaather Sussex Stakes Jim Crowley Goodwood
Mohaather (Jim Crowley) wins the G1 Qatar Sussex Stakes at Goodwood. Photo: Racenews

After all, if someone seemingly as successful as Vaughan can’t make it pay, then how many can? Not many trainers win Group races which, even if the prizes are reduced, are still rather more lucrative than day-to-day run-of-the-mill contests.

However, instead of concluding on such a doom-laden hypothesis – and without wishing in any way to underplay the gravity of the current crisis – I’m going to finish with a spot of cheerleading for racing after a truly remarkable week’s action at the end of July.

So let’s hear it for Enable, Stradivarius and Battaash

Jump racing adherents often point to the longevity of its stars as a primary reason for its popularity, mocking the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of Flat racing’s biggest names. Well, how about Enable, Stradivarius and Battaash? All of them six-year-olds, each one illuminating the sport at the top levels for years on end.

Enable’s historic third victory in the King George at Ascot was a real feelgood moment as the queen of the turf defended her throne in typically brilliant fashion, belying any suggestion that advancing years may have dimmed her powers.

Admittedly, the relative lack of runners at Ascot was unfortunate but nevertheless in many other years, Enable’s performance could stand alone as the highlight of the summer – yet only days later it was followed by the mighty stayer Stradivarius overcoming trouble to win the Goodwood Cup for the fourth year in a row. 

Horse Racing Stradivarius Gold Cup Royal Ascot
Stradivarius (Frankie Dettori) wins the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. Photo: Racenews

With the Arc now on his agenda, he seems to be getting better – an incredible remark that might also apply to Battaash, who scorched the turf to complete his four-timer in the King George Stakes, in the process smashing up his own track record at one of the faster five-furlong courses in the world. You don’t need to be an anorak-clad student of the clock to know that 55.62s means he was going seriously fast.

Then there was Mohaather’s thrilling turn of foot in the Sussex Stakes, in which he showed himself a world-class miler by beating a pair of above-average Guineas winners and a three-time Group 1 winner in Circus Maximus (and boy, is that horse tough!)

All this, within just a seven-day period! If Ascot was amazing, then Goodwood really was glorious. Put it all together and it is clear we are living through a truly golden era for Flat racing in Britain.

It is just the cruellest of ironies that we are also living through a catastrophic era in the context of the wider world, which is why we are unable to experience any of these wonders in the flesh.

With so much to applaud, it can be regarded only as a huge disappointment that there is virtually nobody there to applaud.

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