Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake discusses the potential of a new race, having been inspired by the blinding speed of Battaash at York's Ebor Festival. Kevin also wonders could the Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million bonus be improved and made even more engaging.

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BRILLIANT BATTAASH PLANTS SEED FOR NEW RACE

Battaash set York alight on Friday by finally showing his true colours in the Nunthorpe. The race set up perfectly for him and he delivered in tremendous style, lowering Dayjur’s 29-year-old record time in the race. It was a performance that removed any remaining doubts that on his best day, he is as good a five-furlong sprinter as we have seen in decades.

Battaash is a rare asset for horse racing, being a truly top-class performer that is a gelding. This means he is likely to stay racing for as long as his soundness allows rather than being whisked off to stud. Now that he has seemingly overcome the mental frailties that threatened to hold him back, the hope will be that he can reign at the top of the sprinting division for quite some time yet.

With that and Battaash’s record-breaking performance in the Nunthorpe in mind, perhaps there is scope to create an opportunity for Battaash, or indeed any other sprinter that wants a crack at it, to do something genuinely remarkable on a British racecourse.

The five-furlong course at Epsom is the fastest on the planet, with Stone Of Folca setting the world record for the distance when stopping the clock at 53.69 seconds in the Dash in 2012.

With a horse like Battaash on the scene, how much fun would it be to frame a race on Derby day that would give the fastest sprinters around the chance to break the record? While it isn’t as simple as creating a new Group race or transferring one to Derby day given the wider considerations of the European Pattern, creating a new conditions race would be much more readily achievable.

Given the platform that Derby day offers and the mainstream marketability of such a concept, one suspects it could well prove to be sufficiently attractive to a sponsor to put up a big pot, perhaps even offering a bonus to any horse that breaks the record in victory.

With just two-and-a-half weeks separating the Derby meeting and Royal Ascot, perhaps there would be scope to attract sprinters from around the world that could use the Epsom contest as a lead-in to Royal Ascot. There is obvious potential for it to become a globally marketable race.

Battaash and Jim Crowley win the Nunthorpe
Jim Crowley lets the naysayers of Battaash know what he's thinking after the Nunthorpe

There are three £50,000 handicaps on the Derby card and with all due respect to them, I don’t think any of them would be mourned if they were dropped to make room for the new race. All we’d need is a bit of luck to get good-to-firm ground to make breaking the record a realistic possibility.

The biggest barrier to the concept is likely to be the presence of the Temple Stakes at Haydock a week earlier. Naturally, there would be potential for one contest to take away from the other, but given the niche demands that the race at Epsom would present, it might not be as big an issue as one might think.

Battaash would obviously be a big loss to the Temple, but the other horses that would likely take up the challenge of the new race wouldn’t necessarily be greatly missed at Haydock. For example, the likes of Caspian Prince, Ornate, Kachy and El Astronaute would be unlikely to be considered leading contenders in the Temple, but their searing speed would make them exciting additions to the new race at Epsom.

The possibility of the likes of Soldier’s Call and any foreign raiders being tempted into the fray at Epsom would make it even more exciting.

Sometimes in racing we are too deferential to tradition and don’t always embrace new concepts. Innovation in race planning has tended to come in the form of obscenely valuable buy-in races such as the Pegasus World Cup and the Everest. However, while it might take a big prize fund to make this proposed new race at Epsom work as hoped, it wouldn’t be like those other races.

It wouldn’t be just about the money. The focus would be on something far more exciting, lasting and marketable, the world record. That is something anyone can understand and get excited about, which is exactly the type of thing we need to bring horse racing to a wider audience.   

STRADIVARIUS INSPIRES AN IDEA

Stradivarius consolidated his position as one of the greatest stayers of recent times by continuing his remarkable winning run in the Lonsdale Cup at York on Friday. While we didn’t learn any more about him in victory, his success did prompt a thought in my mind.

The Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million has now been won twice in a row, albeit by a remarkable horse in Stradivarius. Thus, one wonders might there be some scope to freshen up the composition of the series to give it a new shine. 

It goes without saying that if a horse is good enough to win the first three legs of the series that they can be expected to be a short-priced favourite for the Lonsdale Cup at York, as exhibited by Stradivarius going off at 4/11 and 4/9 in the last two renewals. 

Speaking plainly, that isn’t the most riveting of conclusions to what is a great series. With that in mind, imagine how much more intriguing and engaging it would be if the final leg of the Million was changed to the Ebor? A £1m Ebor with a £1m bonus, wouldn’t that be something!

In the National Hunt sphere in the past, legends have been made by top-class horses giving away lumps of weight to all challengers in highly-competitive handicaps. Because of the way the Pattern is set up in Europe, the Ebor is pretty much the only realistic possibility of a genuine Group 1 star carrying top weight in a handicap.

While to do so would be considered unconventional, the carrot of a £1m bonus in additional to the already substantial prize money would be hard to resist. 

Imagine Stradivarius had contested the Ebor on Saturday? It would have been absolutely fascinating and offered him a chance to do something genuinely remarkable to add to his legend. Food for thought, perhaps.

EMBRACING EDUCATION AT YORK

For many years it has been suggested in this space that the racing authorities should get on the front foot of the perception of the whip in racing by investing in education on the ground at racecourses. Thus, it was promising to see the BHA utilising a stall at York to do just that. Nick Rust manned it himself on Thursday and anyone that wanted to handle a racing whip had the opportunity to do so.

As has been said ad nauseum by those that are familiar with the tool, anyone that has concerns about it are likely to have them allayed after they hold it in their hands. A decision on whether to make these whip education stalls commonplace on British racecourses is seemingly on hold until the conclusion of the latest whip research project.

On a related note, it was also lovely to see the New Beginnings stall in the middle of the track close to the winning post where racegoers could meet the retired racehorses Mister McGoldrick and Golden Hello.

It might seem like a simple thing, but the potential for enhancing the experience of casual racegoers by giving them the chance to get up close to former equine participants shouldn’t be underestimated.

YORK GET IT SO RIGHT

While the top-class quality of the racing certainly helped, it was hard not to come away from York with the thought that as a racecourse, they really get it right. As well as being a thoroughly beautiful and well-equipped sporting facility, it runs like a well-oiled machine no matter what price has been paid at the gate.

Despite the huge numbers of attendees, it doesn’t feel packed there. The atmosphere is fantastic and a higher proportion of the crowd engages with the racing action than often seems the case on big days on British racecourses.

If all of this sounds gushing, that is the intention. In my opinion, of all the tracks I have attended around the world, York is one of if not the most enjoyable places to go horse racing. If you haven’t been there before, start planning to attend next year's Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival. You won’t regret it.

Kevin Blake
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