Saturday’s new-look British Champions Day at Ascot has been hyped by racing bosses as a day like no other in the history of the Flat in this country.
With £3million in prize money, it is the richest raceday in Britain, attracting the best horses on the level, and the Queen will be in attendance.
However, its real significance lies in racing finally getting what other sports have always had. As trainer John Gosden put it: “A grand finale to the Flat season.”
“It has been a bit silly the way we have run our racing,” says Gosden, as we sit in the weighing room at Ascot.
“We have fantastic festivals through the summer but no final day to finish the season. It’s like getting to the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup and not bothering with the final.
“Just pick from the best four teams and we’ll all go home. What this Saturday means is that, for the first time, racing will have a Cup Final day.”
The reference to football is not accidental as 60-year-old Gosden explains how racing is struggling compared to the nation’s favourite sport.
“With the religion of this country being football, racing’s slice of terrestrial TV and the press is being challenged,” he says. “Football gets vast sums from television but racing has found that difficult.”
So much so that racing partially subsidises Channel 4’s coverage of the sport and the BBC has seen its influence decline in recent years.
Saturday’s big event is racing’s answer to match football with a combination of the FA Cup Final and the last day of the Premier League.
Though racing already had a ‘Champions Day’ at Newmarket, it has been repackaged and moved to Ascot as part of the Racing for Change initiative which has seen the sport’s rulers try to reach out to the wider public.
In fact, an advert for the day is scheduled to be shown on cinema screens in London and the south-east 611 times.
The inaugural event on Saturday is the climax of the British Champions’ Series, which was launched in April.
The day could see Gosden become champion trainer for the first time, although Richard Hannon and Henry Cecil are firm favourites.
Gushing about the prospect of the big day, Gosden, who trains at Newmarket, says: “October 15 will be a mighty racing day, it’s already captured our imagination.
“Frankel [unbeaten in eight races] will be going for the mile [Queen Elizabeth II Stakes]. And the quality of horses going for the top races: the mile and a quarter, mile and a half, sprint and the fillies’ races will be the best in Europe, a phenomenal line-up.”
Gosden concedes that it has not been easy for racing to get its showpiece day. He says: “The sport was run by a lot of people who rather enjoyed it as a private domain. They were too complacent believing that people have always gone racing, that they always will. That is no longer the case and that is why you’re beginning to see a change.”
This has meant dealing with the class divide that once blighted the sport. Not far from where we are sitting was the infamous Ascot tunnel which non-members had to go through to get to the paddock which is situated behind the grandstand.
Many a time they couldn’t get back down the tunnel in time to watch the race.
The tunnel went in Ascot’s reconstruction in 2006 and, says Gosden, “The people who run racing have woken up to the fact that the sport needs to be made more inclusive and accessible.”
He sees this wake-up call as one of the benefits of recession.
“A recession focuses minds,” adds Gosden, who has trained more than 2,300 winners. “When there’s a lot of fat in the pan no one really has to make a decision. But, when the number of horses being bred and going into training are in decline, the number wanting to own horses are falling, you’ve got to be a lot sharper with your product if you’re going to survive. Sometimes good things come out of a bad recession.”
His own career is testimony to that. Gosden, having graduated in economics from Cambridge in 1974, hoped to go into the City. “But that was right into Edward Heath’s three-day work week. People think we’re in a recession now. They should remember that one. There were no lights two days a week. It was a nightmare and you couldn’t get a job in London so I went off to Venezuela and worked in land development.
“But I wound up going to the racecourse in the morning, working with the horses at 4am before going to the office. Because of the humidity and the heat they trained very early under lights there. I enjoyed it and wrote to Noel Murless in Newmarket.
“He took me on as a pupil assistant which and that was it. I’ve been in the game ever since. It’s very funny because the last thing my father [former trainer 'Towser'] said to me before he died, whatever you do don’t become a trainer, it’s seven days a week and 11½ months of the year non-stop. Without Ted Heath and all that mess I might have owned horses but never become a trainer.”
This recession, says Gosden, may change the Flat more fundamentally, as trainers now are not always sending their three-year-olds straight to stud.
Gosden has no plans to retire King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Nathaniel, who will be running in the Champion Stakes.
“I would very much look forward to bringing him back to run in the King George again as a four-year-old,” he says. “We’re getting that more now because the commerciality of the breeding market is not as frothy as it used to be. People are actually enjoying racing these horses. If the prize money is strong, they’re going to keep the horses in training.”
But much as Gosden is looking forward to Saturday, he believes the racing bosses have got the Champions Day date wrong. “It should be in September. The old expression was autumn comes in on the tail of the last horse in the St Leger. You really want to have your championship at the end of summer festivals. The kids aren’t back at school and more families can come.”
Gosden blames this on the British desire not to upset other countries. He adds: “We sit on the European Pattern Committee [who regulate racedays]. Being so British, following every EU directive, we feel we can’t possibly change because it might offend one of our neighbours.
“Meanwhile, as we saw at the Arc weekend, the French have moved seven Group One races to one day and called it Arc Day. They did it in the usual sneaky way by not paying a lot of attention to others and slipping things through. We British always like having the moral high ground.”
However, it is not British morality but the obsession with “political correctness” that Gosden blames for the new whipping rules which started yesterday. Now a jockey cannot whip a horse more than seven times in a Flat race.
Gosden complains: “The restriction has come because of the perception of people watching on television who don’t understand racing and aren’t around horses all the time. They think it’s cruel. Actually, it’s not at all unless someone is abusive and, if they are, that jockey should be pulled in.”
The trainer admits that Jason Maguire’s whipping of Grand National winner Ballabriggs was “clearly wrong” and adds: “The jockey knew he was going to win the race.”
However, that one moment of aberration does not justify the new rules. “A horse is a huge, great, powerful animal,” Gosden says. “If it wants to run it will, if it doesn’t it won’t.
“I’ve trained horses long enough to know that if a horse doesn’t want to put the effort in, the whip is not going to make any difference.
“The whips are required by jockeys to balance horses, to get a horse to stretch in the last part of the race, otherwise they’ll just not bother. Certainly the big colts require it, otherwise racing will become rather silly. They’ll just be running around everywhere.”
Gosden then points to changes to the whips. “It happened about three or four years ago. The whips that are used now are covered in foam rubber. They make a slap noise but they don’t even hurt. In America, you get pulled in for not hitting the horses enough. But, again, we are trying to do everything by the rules.”
Despite this and the fact that the recession has affected investment from overseas, particularly the Middle and Far East, Gosden draws comfort from the fact that international owners want to race here. “The reason they come is that we have the most fantastic race meetings, great tradition and the royal family, particularly the Queen, are backing racing.”
But Gosden worries about what may happen when the Queen goes. “Charles is not that keen,” he says. Not that Gosden will let thoughts of the reign of Prince Charles distract him from trying to guide Nathaniel to victory on Saturday.