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Digging the dirt – Ashes to Ashes
News: By: Rolf Johnson
March 12 , 2023

In the words of Rudyard Kipling, spoken by Ganesh: “It is but the shifting of a little dirt…let the dirt dig in the dirt ere it return to the dirt.” The line is from the Nobel Prize winning author’s story The Bridge Builders. The Gods don’t approve of a British engineer, Findlayson, ‘taming’ the Ganges by building a railway bridge across the sacred river.

It’s a story a bit like the famous British war film ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ – except that particular railway bridge was built by British prisoners, slaves of the Japanese in Burma, who then blew it to smithereens.

Findlayson’s span of the Ganges survives a flood orchestrated by the Gods. But the ancient seemingly indestructible ‘bridge’ between newspapers and their once devoted readers is collapsing. Most publications feel their only salvation is to dig deeper and deeper in the dirt: Britain’s trade racing paper, the Racing Post, appears intent on excavating its own grave with a succession of distasteful stories – and escalating prices.


When in 2012 Richard Hughes and then Martin Dwyer the following year were banned by the RWITC in Mumbai apoplectic reporting in the UK burst the Richter Scale. Comment in the Post and the British Press at large, by those who wouldn’t have known Mahalaxmi from a laxative, was hysterical. In contrast came the measured assessments on Racing Pulse.

What follows here is another specific instance which highlights a general phenomenon – the continued descent of racing reporting in Britain and the consequent disenchantment of its readership.

A Racing Post writer once jibed: “Don’t think you’re clever just because you quote great writers.” I replied: “Don’t worry, I won’t be quoting you.” But, in a moment, I’m going to quote him – several times.

“I read the newspapers with lively interest. It is seldom they are absolutely point blank wrong”. (From Scoop – Evelyn Waugh’s eponymous newspaper novel). The Post’s man was wrong in many respects – not least the disservice he was doing to racing. He has, this month, muckraked a case resolved by the BHA ten months ago, yes last May.

The reporter starts as he means to continue – with an error. “Fined only £250 by BHA” he whines about small trainer Jimmy Fox’s punishment subsequent to I Doubt That landing a gamble from 33-1 to 11-4 at Kempton ten months ago. The figure should have read £3,116 because the prize money was taken away too.

If the writer was trying to illustrate the difference between an old-fashioned gamble and a new-fangled one, he ‘must try harder’. According to him the winner “surged to victory”: presumably he has a difference of opinion with his colleague, the Post’s race-reader, whose analysis was “ridden two furlongs out, kept on” for I Doubt That’s three-parts of a length victory over a horse giving 2lb and rated 52 - think an ordinary race at Ooty.

Fox’s I Doubt That had raced previously in Ireland off 51 and as result of Kempton was raised to 55. This year, already in the UK, there have been two winners for important trainers (neither of them being Sir Mark Prescott, a legend at getting his horses well handicapped and, in his spare time, winning last year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe) who had beaten the handicap system.

This pair of winners had three runs to their names to qualify for their first handicap mark. They had each beaten one horse in their previous outings. And these occurrences came in the past month, 2023, not last May. Both horses had been gelded and upped in trip. There were no stewards’ enquiries.

If the writer harbours a vendetta against the trainer of I Doubt That why didn’t he delve even further back, as far as the summer of 1983? Sovereign Paul’s owner (Irish) moved the gelding across Salisbury Plain (passing Stonehenge) from David Elsworth at Whitsbury to Elsworth’s long-time pal Fox at Winterbourne Stoke. Sovereign Paul (rated a couple of pounds better than I Doubt That) landed a bit of a touch, in a Bath seller, beating the favourite - trained by, D Elsworth.

What compost the Post’s man could have made out of that had he been around at the time.

Elsworth then trained top sprinter Indian Ridge for Sovereign Paul’s owners, the Coughlans. And Fox bought them Joshua’s Daughter for 420gns; saved her life when she suffered a fracture and she begat Ben’s Pearl who begat Cartier Horse of the Year 1995 and Breeders’ Cup winner Ridgewood Pearl (by Indian Ridge). And the Coughlans went on to breed High Chaparral.

In as snide a tone as he can muster the Post writer states: “BHA expressed satisfaction that the combination of a new trainer, trip, surface and equipment were sufficient explanations for the personal-best effort from I Doubt That.” Personal best? 55?

Our doubting Thomas, the writer, calls I Doubt That “extremely unheralded”. What does that mean? The band of the Brigade of Guards were hardly likely to be on hand with a fanfare as the gamble returned to a bleak winner’s enclosure on that dank evening at Kempton, the scene played in front of a handful of largely disinterested punters witnessing the first Fox winner for over nine hundred days.

The writer dribbles insinuations such as “deceive” and “ deception”: Mrs Fox’s testimony “sheds a different light”. And so it does: the light it sheds on our trade paper is that putrid interpretations are preferred to acceptance of genuine, utterly guileless explanations. “I think it's the same people who owned him there (in Ireland),” revealed the trainer’s wife who habitually represents her husband at the races – including driving the box, declaring at the scales, saddling and leading up, washing down – and all for some geek writer, who wasn’t even there, to rubbish her motives.

Rule (J) 24.2 makes clear “A person must not provide any inaccurate information to the BHA”. Mrs Fox’s information was accurate. It hadn’t been possible for the ownership registration to be completed in the Irish owner’s name, in time for the horse to run in his colours. A horse’s readiness waits for no pen pusher.

But our man at the Post can’t resist putting the boot in: (Mrs Fox’s) “relatively innocent explanation” satisfied the BHA. How can anything be ‘relatively innocent’ except in the lexicon of someone struggling with English syntax?

And associating this case, mentioning it in the same breath as Ronan McNally’s (nothing to do with I Doubt That) recent 12-year ban in Ireland for a number of transgressions, is a risible, reprehensible attempt to conjoin matters worlds apart.

Whither the Racing Post? The oldest trick in the book is distracting attention from a catastrophe by announcing an ‘accident’. So the week before the all-consuming Cheltenham Jumps Festival, the Racing Post raises its price – now approaching Rs450 daily. An old racecourse pro would, in the paper’s early days (founded 1986) collect the Racing Post out of the waste bin and buy The Sporting Life . Then he started buying the Post and lifting the Life out of the bin. You knew then the Life’s days (1859-1998) were numbered. The rubbish skip awaits the Post.

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