Ascot’s Shergar Cup symbolises the dangers of racing’s skewed message

HEAD TURNER -- top female jockey Hayley Turner, who came out of retirement to ride a winner at the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup at Ascot on Saturday.
HEAD TURNER -- top female jockey Hayley Turner, who came out of retirement to ride a winner at the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup at Ascot on Saturday.

Here are a couple of quick quiz questions for you. Which team won the Shergar Cup at Ascot in 2010? And which jockey took the Silver Saddle in 2013?

No, I thought not. If you cared, or if it mattered, you’d know, wouldn’t you? Just as you know, and how could you forget, that the stand-out winners in those years of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, also held at Ascot, were the brilliant HARBINGER and NOVELLIST.

Yet, by some remarkable public-relations sleight of hand, we are being asked to believe that the Shergar Cup, successfully staged for the 17th time on Saturday, now carries as much resonance in the grand scheme of all things Flat racing as the King George.

I nearly choked on my muesli on the morning of the Dubai Duty Free-sponsored event when I read this by Lee Mottershead in the ‘Racing Post’: “Some traditionalists scoff at a fixture that brings team competition to racing, yet ticket sales and turnstile action tell you all you need to know. The Shergar Cup now draws more racegoers to Ascot than the King George, held only two weeks earlier. They come in plentiful numbers and, year after year, they keep coming back.” After the event, Mottershead went further, telling us that while many were still indifferent to the Shergar Cup, “nearly 30,000 people at the sport’s most famous venue will tell you they loved it”.

So the traditionalists, or the purists, or the serious racing enthusiasts, or, to be even more exact, those who actually keep the racing show on the road, are not only to be scalded for disliking or opposing the Shergar Cup. They are now veritable villains of the piece for refusing to accept on the sport’s top table the place of a competition, the relevance of which to real racing is on a par with the relevance to real life of ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ or ‘TOWIE’. And all on the basis that it attracts a crowd of about 30,000, slightly more than that for one of the great races in the European calendar. This is inverted snobbery of the highest order.

Glossing over the fact that this year’s Shergar Cup attendance was actually well down on the previous year, it is the safest bet of the season that, of those 30,000, most were NOT there for the racing but for the post-racing ‘Party In The Paddock’ concert. And with a three-pronged line-up as powerful as Ronan Keating, Fun Lovin’ Criminals and Gabrielle, why not?

Not far from where I live, a social club used to run an annual bus-trip to this shindig. But posters on the wall did not give one, even fleeting, mention to the words ‘Shergar’ or ‘Cup’ or ‘racing’. To Ascot for a concert, paid-up signatories were heading. One year I met some of them on their return. Not one of them could tell me the name of a single horse that had won. Not only had they not gone for the racing, they had also not engaged with it or embraced it while they were there. I suspect similarly depressing feedback from music events that now attach themselves to race meetings up and down the country every summer. Of course, these concerts grow attendances. Of course, they fill the coffers of racecourses which, in turn, bolsters prize money. But there is zero evidence that they are fulfilling what they were orginally created to achieve, namely a fresh army of racing fans.

My main gripe with the Shergar Cup is that it does not revolve around the horses or betting. Anyone involved in racing would do well to follow the mantra that the horses must come first. On Shergar Cup day, they are mere pawns on the stage of a jockeys’ jamboree. Their names, their trainers, their owners are incidental. And no-one would be advised to bet on a Shergar Cup race, given the presence of riders alien to their surroundings and their mounts and performing primarily for the purpose of earning points for their team. The ride by Japanese jockey Kenichi Ikezoe on favourite SEA OF HEAVEN in the stayers’ race provided ample evidence on Saturday to support such abstinence.

Having said all of that, I have no objection to the Shergar Cup per se. As a harmless curio, it is a one-off novelty. It is to be praised for the way it showcases the under-estimated talents of female jockeys, such as Hayley Turner, and for the way it encourages the kind of international influx that must make Brexiteers blush. What sticks in my craw is when we are told such a synthetic piece of floss is now the mainstream norm, a template for how we should be presenting racing.

Much like those who defend obnoxious and offensive tweets by branding them as banter, the Shergar Cup apologists tell us it is all about fun when, in fact, far more racing fun was to be had on Saturday at Newmarket and Haydock where three fascinating Pattern races were criminally lost amid the fanfare emanating from Ascot.

As part of the same skewed, warped message, we are now told that punters’ successes, such as at Goodwood, and betting coups, such as that of Irish trainer Charles Byrnes, are not to be celebrated but are actually bad for the racing industry. It is why bookies talk of wanting only to do business with ‘recreational punters’ and send texts to customers inviting them to “claim 20 free spins on The Pig Wizard’. It is underpinned by a perceived policy of dumbing down racing, stripping its followers of too much information but fuelling them with too many pints of lager, reducing it to a pastime as shallow as sunbathing or pilates, and sending the aficionados to hell in a handcart, preferably driven by Tom Jones and Bryan Adams.

It is a message that dismays young and old alike within the sport. And worst of all, with every music stage that blocks the view of the track and every drunken fight that breaks out in the stands or bars, it risks alienating them for good.

Frankel filly the star attraction as normal service is resumed with York’s Ebor Festival

After the Shergar Cup, normal service is resumed in racing circles next week when York stages one of the most important and most enjoyable meetings of the Flat calendar, the Ebor Festival. The Knavesmire in the middle of August has long been a Mecca for the sport’s disciples, and not even the decisions to extend the meeting from three days to four and to incorporate a Saturday have diluted its appeal. This year, record prize-money will attract stellar fields for a 25-race programme highlighted by blockbusting Group Ones, the Juddmonte International, the Darley Yorkshire Oaks and the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes, and rounded off by the Betfred Ebor Handicap itself. It just might be, however, that the main attraction will be a twice-raced 2yo filly -- the latest Frankel phenomenon, FAIR EVA. Don’t miss her in Thursday’s Sky Bet Lowther Stakes.