Donn's Articles » Winter flat season

Winter flat season

You couldn’t have written a more dramatic climax to the 2010 Irish flat racing season than the one that was actually played out at Dundalk on a finger-numbing December evening 11 days ago. We have the three apprentices who fought out the championship to thank for that, with Gary Carroll having sole title to the trophy whisked from his grasp inside the last 50 yards of the last race of the season. Reality more compelling than fiction.

Even so, there was something a little anti-climactic about the occasion that was the flat season’s finale. Flat racing is essentially a summer pursuit. When you think back over the 2010 season, you think of Rite Of Passage and Age Of Aquarius going toe-to-toe through the final throes of the Ascot Gold Cup, you think about Pathfork winning the National Stakes, Dirar winning the Ebor, you think of Casamento, Cape Blanco and Starspangledbanner. Somehow, it doesn’t seem that a December night at Dundalk with snow on the ground and your breath visible in the air is an appropriate climax.

Events conspired to heighten interest in the end of the season this year. As well as the fact that the apprentices’ championship went the distance, the jockeys’ championship went 11 and a half rounds.

The weather also played its part. There was no turf racing in Ireland between 25th November and 12th December. During that period, Dundalk’s all-weather track was the only game in town. The Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and the Drinmore Chase were postponed, the John Durkan Chase was postponed, even across the water the Tingle Creek Chase was postponed in order to allow the Polytrack commandeer maximum attention.

It would have been difficult to concoct a set of circumstances that would have been more conducive to the season ending on a high than those that prevailed. If this had been a normal season, one in which the championships were decided long before the final day, and if the weather hadn’t knocked the National Hunt season for six, the conclusion of the flat season would hardly have generated more than a couple of paragraphs in the trade papers.

The current situation is far from ideal. Not only do the summer’s leading performers deserve a more fitting celebration of their achievements, but it seems a little odd that the season drags on into the middle of winter, with just one meeting a week from early November. Riders have to keep race-fit and remain in the country, trainers keep horses and staff, all so that they can have the opportunity to race once a week. Most of the top yards were well represented right to the end of the season, but you have to think that, if Pat Smullen and Fran Berry and Joseph O’Brien had not been embroiled in championship battles, then perhaps the yards of Dermot Weld and John Oxx and Aidan O’Brien might not have been so active.

As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Dundalk all-weather facility is an under-utilised facility, and its need has come sharply into focus of late with the dearth of turf racing. (The staging of a bumper card at Dundalk for National Hunt horses, like they have at Kempton today and at Southwell tomorrow, is surely an obvious move.) It doesn’t make sense that the track is closed for racing from mid-December until late March, just when an all-weather facility should be of greatest benefit.

The obvious solution going forward is to split the flat season into two, the summer season, the true flat season as we understand it, and a winter all-weather season. End the flat season with the November Handicap at Leopardstown in late October or early November, crown the champions that day, or at a reception shortly afterwards, and start the all-weather season at Dundalk the following week.

Media focus hasn’t shifted that far from the flat by the end of October. Of course, there is plenty of National Hunt talk, some of the early meetings have been staged, but the Champion Chase is the following weekend, the Paddy Power meeting and the Morgiana Hurdle are the weekend after that, and the highs of the flat season are still relatively fresh in racing enthusiasts’ memories.

The all-weather season would run from early November to mid-March, and the flat season proper would start again at The Curragh on the Sunday after Cheltenham. The winter all-weather season probably wouldn’t stage top class racing. The top flat trainers could close up shop from November to March, the top riders could take a break or gain employment in sunnier climes, but there would be flat racing in Ireland for those horses and trainers and riders who wanted to engage with it, and there are plenty who do.

They would have to race more than once a week in order to make it worthwhile, and there is a funding issue there, which isn’t ideal in the wake of the budgetary cuts to the Horse and Greyhound Fund. But twice a week would be a good starting point, and that could be viable.

SIS, who contribute over €30,000 to the racecourse per race meeting, have indicated that they would be willing to pay a significant premium if all-weather racing were run through the winter, which makes sense given that such a move would presumably be of significant benefit to the bookmaking industry. Some of that funding could easily be diverted into prize money, probably in the form of sponsorship.

The number of races per day could be set at six instead of seven or eight, prize money could be distributed evenly and normal minimum race values could even be reduced for the winter season. Opportunities to race are more important for the target population of horses than opportunities to race for large pots. The horses are there, the track is there, all we need now is the willingness to make it happen.

© The Racing Post, 21st December 2010