Matt Tombs / Monday 3rd February 2014 / 13:00
Arguably the 2 biggest Saturdays in Britain between new year and the Festival occur last week and next week. It's a sign of the lack of planning between the British and Irish authorities that the 2 biggest fixtures in Ireland, are on the Sundays of those weekends. That left the week in-between pretty low key, even before the weather claimed the most intriguing contest between Un De Sceaux and Melodic Rendezvous.
Arvika Ligeonniere is a horse that divides opinion. There’s no doubt that he’s a high class chaser and he bolted up in the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown, (2m, heavy.) His form is going right handed but, unlike last season, he is jumping straight – and I’m not sure if going left handed will be a problem if he’s given his head, (holding him up at left handed Leopardstown last time didn’t look to work.) He likes cut and his Champion Chase (16/1) chances depend on Sprinter Sacre, but I doubt that there’s a horse, ignoring the champion, with as much talent amongst the entries.
Suntiep was put up earlier in the season by the Mullins team as the horse that Patrick might ride in the 4 miler. Having disappointed on his chasing debut, he looked in trouble 2 out in the beginners at Fairyhouse, (3m1f, heavy.) However Si C'etait Vrai got tired approaching the last where he took a crashing fall, presenting Suntiep with the race, although it was far from certain his stamina wouldn't have won the day anyway. He's 25/1 for the 4 miler - whilst he'll need more experience before then and to improve a fair bit, it's not the sort of price I'd want to be laying.
The Scilly Isles novice chase is often one of the weakest Grade 1s during the winter, and continued the trend of substandard looking graded novice chases this season, (extended 2m4f, heavy.) Oscar Whisky looked to face a penalty kick but made hard work of landing odds of 1/6, jumping slowly and getting behind down the back straight, before his class told on the run in. It's possible the JLT could be a weak race this season, but even so he won't be able to outclass his rivals there and would have to jump much better to make an impact. It's likely one or two will have improved past this classy 9 year old by then and 10/1 doesn't appeal.
Wicklow Brave managed the rare feat of winning 3 bumpers, and bolted up from a subsequent winner on his hurdles debut. Despite being keen, he outclassed Lieutenant Colonel at Punchestown, (2m, heavy.) He’s 16/1 for the Supreme. The concern is the owner also has Arctic Fire – both are only entered for the Supreme of the Festival Grade 1s. Arctic Fire might get the chance to test his credentials in the Grade 1 Deloitte hurdle next week, and both look realistic Supreme candidates.
Vieux Lion Rouge is the classic novice hurdler who could be anything following his win at Wincanton, (2m, heavy.) He was 11th in the Festival Bumper last season but has now won his other 5. He’s been kept very low key over hurdles in 2 runs so far this season – the Neptune (33/1) is apparently his target and he’ll go there an interesting unknown quantity.
It looks like he may bypass the Festival this season but Saphir Du Rheu continues to impress as a top class prospect, having edged out Whisper in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las off 158, (less Harry Derham’s 5lb claim, 2m4f, heavy.) He looked beaten coming to the last but a mistake by Whisper gave him another chance and he showed a good attitude under pressure. A 5 year old has never won the World Hurdle (14/1) and he’s probably a bit short of that standard at this stage, but will be one of the best hurdlers going novice chasing next season.
Finally, the lack of Festival clues this week makes it a good opportunity to consider the viewing figures for the revamped Channel 4 coverage, after it's first year. The headline figures reported in Saturday's Racing Post were a 20% fall in overall viewers, (ie including comparisons with events previously on BBC,) and an 8% fall in viewers for programmes also shown by the old C4 team.
Whilst such statistics tend to be volatile, it's a pretty desperate set of results - even before the debacle over the Morning Line missing the Big Buck's jockey story, (when Sam Twiston-Davies was the guest), has a knock on effect.
It’s a complex subject but I think that the basic problem is that the C4 coverage is neither one thing nor the other. It is too lightweight for the committed racing fan, but doesn't have the charm and humour to reach out to those casually interested in the sport.
In order to reach out to a wider audience, the programme has to be enjoyable beyond the racing content. That can be done in many ways - to take two examples at the opposite ends of the spectrum, many people watch Top Gear who like the boys clowning around, even though they have little interest in cars or motor racing. By contrast, Test Match Special succeeds in attracting listeners who aren’t committed cricket fans, because it creates a bygone atmosphere of the village green, with leather hitting willow, church bells in the background etc.
C4 needs to find its niche to have that wider attraction. The key attribute missing is humour. John Francome used to provide this, but listening to Graham Cunningham's pre-prepared one-liners is excruciating - like meeting the father of your date, who makes jokes to try and be cool. Racing is a sport where the action is going on for a relatively small part of the time, (especially during the Festival where there's only racing from one track.). Whatever style is selected, some humour is essential - none of the current presenters provide that.
During last year’s Festival when Ted Walsh said another presenters view was "crap," Clare Balding immediately apologised, grande dame, to viewers for his "fruity" language. Bad language should be kept to a minimum, but this was such a starchy response, it reinforced the sanitised atmosphere of the programme.
For the core racing fans, the programme needs some heavyweight analysis. My barometer is that when I return from the Festival I always watch the entire C4 recordings. At the start of the following season, one of the first things I do is to watch them again, fast-forwarding through anything that's not of interest. That used to involve watching the vast majority of the programme.
This year I fast-forwarded through everything except the races, the betting news, interviews with jockeys / trainers, anything Ted Walsh said and some of the discussion / analysis between Nick Luck, Graham Cunningham and Jim McGrath. It took about half the time it had taken in previous years.
C4 needs to get back to basics and analyse the races in depth. Race fans want to see proper discussion of the form and issues of the day. That needs people with different views, who are prepared to criticise each other’s views sensibly - and for some fun and banter in that debate.
At the moment, there's little to attract committed race fans other than the races themselves - and recordings of the races can be watched free on the internet at viewers convenience. C4’s coverage is the gateway to enthralling the core racing audience, and also attracting many, many others to our sport. It’s too important to be second rate.