A Great Loss

March 21st, 2024 | Marten's Current Racing Diary

Hi there,

I have to start this piece on a sad note.

As some of you may be aware, I was blessed to count Steve Harley as a friend for over forty years, so news of his illness and then death on Sunday came as a great shock.

We go back to the early 80s, when he arranged to meet up with me having followed my column in the Sunday Times. Not long afterwards he bought a share in Cloudwalker, a horse that I managed, along with others from the entertainment industry including Mel Smith and Enn Reitel.

Steve was down on his luck in those days, but he made a comeback at the Hammersmith Odeon and was staggered at the acclaim with which he was welcomed back by his loyal fanbase.

Things gradually picked up for him and in recent years he toured extensively, carried by the momentum of the 80s revival.

He was, of course, linked to the 2007 dual-Guineas winner Cockney Rebel, who he backed ante-post at 66/1 to win at Newmarket.

Steve had been a journalist – and was very proud of the fact – and he wrote a few pieces for my Dark Horses annuals. Some of you have been in touch about them.

The last time we met backstage he was, as usual, up-to-speed with the day’s racing and as strongly opinionated as ever! He used to look at the results after every gig before he went to bed, having completed – more often than not – the Times crossword.

Steve will be forever associated with one song – Make Me Smile – but that alone does him scant justice. He created a substantial body of work covering five decades, and never failed to deliver when performing live.

It is somehow fitting that he was not taken from us until Cheltenham had run its course.

In the wake of the mixed reports of last week’s events, as someone at the heart of the entertainment industry I would like to have known what Steve would have made of it all.

Steve very deftly blended the old with the new – performing the hits along with fresh material – and I have long said that Cartmel, my local track, has also succeeded in this regard.

I am no kind of expert in racing politics, and I have not been to Cheltenham for many years, but regarding the dominance of Willie Mullins I am reminded of something Luca Cumani once said to me:

“Handicapping is like the worst kind of Communism. It takes away from the good to give to the bad.”

What we need to decide is whether racing is a meritocracy.

An enlightened society supports the weak and less fortunate, but horse racing is a sport and in sport the best should win. Yes, the handicap system is intended to give the less able a chance but at the highest level the best horse should prevail, otherwise it undermines the integrity of the breed.

One possible way forward would be to revert to reclassifying a few of the lesser Grade 1 and Grade 2 races as handicaps. I think I am right in saying that 17 of the 26 chases that Arkle ran in were handicaps, and he was beaten in three of them.

I did raise the question in the Roundup a few weeks ago, in anticipation of the likely turn of events at the Festival, whether Willie Mullins was a better trainer than anyone else or whether he was sourcing the best horses.

I picked up a podcast before Cheltenham in which Barry Geraghty spoke about the speed with which Mullins works his team around tight bends, but unfortunately I’ve not been able to recover it. Ruby Walsh would be the man to ask.

Of course Mullins has the owners behind him to stump up the cash when the right horse comes along, and I gather his scouts are usually at the front of the queue to step in with an offer.

I am indebted to Kevin Blake’s insightful piece on the Atheraces website in which he notes that British-trained runners only filled 10 of the 42 places in the 14 Grade 1 races. What is even more revealing is that if the 75 Mullins-trained runners are removed from the results the tally would still have been 15 to 12 in Ireland’s favour and 10 to 4 in the Grade 1s.

Regarding the experience for on-course patrons, Kevin writes: “The vibe coming into the meeting was as muted as I can recall … I’ve never experienced a flatter two days at the meeting than the Tuesday and Wednesday … the atmosphere never really caught fire.”

As you are aware I picked this up a few weeks ago. One thing I would add is that we could do with a ‘people’s champion’ … a Desert Orchid or Red Rum. Galopin Des Champs may turn out to be very good, but like Constitution Hill and State Man he will never endear himself to racing’s heartland. They are not backable prices for the working punter and their names lack personality.

Social media footage of fights don’t help, while I am told evidence of drug abuse could be seen all over the place. Then we have the costs, with reports of exorbitant rail prices, entrance charges and accommodation.

I cannot see the Irish dominance diminishing in the forthcoming years, and the hope is that the home team can find a flagship horse. Something may emerge, while the drop in attendance could be stemmed, perhaps, by advance offers and package deals.

The sad fact remains that the majority of the British public have no interest whatsoever in horse racing. Yes, they will enjoy a summer evening at the races but for many it represents an al fresco party. Very few will convert to becoming racing fans, let alone owners.

We are facing challenging times.