March 16th, 2021 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

I’ve always been fond of abbots and abbesses, but I missed Abbotsbury Abbot when he won at 50/1 at Newton Abbot a lifetime ago. I thought it would ease the pain if I named this humble dwelling Abbotsbury House and it’s worked to a degree, though the sign is worn and faded now, like the occupant.

Incidentally, do you know the difference between an abbot and a friar? Well, an abbot stays in the monastery and hopes for the best, assisted by prayer, solitude and Raceform, whereas a friar gets out and about, like Friar Tuck, fantasising about Maid…no, no, better not say that. You hardly ever see a thin friar or a fat postman, though I suppose that’s perfectly understandable.

I am a quiet observer these days and there are relatively few occasions when I miss broadcasting and the chance to put my point of view across. Cheltenham will have picked things up, analysed them, dusted them down and all the rest of it by the time you read this, which is a salutary reminder that the topic of the hour is often no more than that. Thus no one will remember that in the Paddy Power Imperial Cup, run on nasty, clinging ground at Sandown the weekend before, Gary Moore’s Natural History started at 2/1 favourite after winning a little race at Plumpton very easily indeed.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks and I’d have found it utterly impossible to fancy, tip or back a horse raised 16lb when switching to a Grade 1 track from homely East Sussex, and I’d have said so on air, not that anyone was about to give me the chance. Natural History came sixth of the 7 finishers. The big problem with the coverage on ITV Racing is that they’re so desperately keen not to put you off anything, anything at all. It wouldn’t do any harm to point out that some favourites are desperately poor value, especially on Saturdays.

I don’t miss broadcasting on racing and it’s only now and then that I miss covering a football match on radio. Watching Brighton beat a struggling Southampton side the other day, I noted it was a long, long time since I’d seen Adam Lallana play the kind of instant, angled pass which sent Welbeck and Trossard through some quite alarming gaps in the Saints defence for the winner.

You can’t take Ings and Romeu out of the Southampton team and expect very much. Survival may depend largely on Ward-Prowse and the implacable Che Adams, all blood, sweat and no tears, an old-time striker with a surprisingly clever touch and no time for the bogus niceties of ‘let me help you up, old chap’, a gesture which used to turn up occasionally but now seems de rigueur.

I might have said as much on 5 Live and where racing is concerned I’d almost certainly have made a few points about the Gordon Elliott affair, if only to contradict the general view within racing that the sport has suffered a crushing blow in the eyes of the general public.

Absolute piffle. Consider the average ‘Fleet Street’ newsroom of old and their latterday equivalents. ‘Has the story got legs?’ the sports editor asks, gruffly. (If you can’t do ‘gruff’ don’t bother applying, stay as a reporter.) Well, the Daily Mail poked around a bit, seeking to play up the revenge angle but most papers tired of the story quite quickly. It didn’t have legs. It was a disturbing picture and, as they no doubt said all over Ireland, ‘Yer man’s a feckin’ eejit, that’s for sure. But that’s ALL he is.’

Which is quite right. And he was punished as an idiot, not a criminal. A twelve-month ban was only six, really, which becomes more like three if you take into account the fact that it occupies much of the Flat season, not the traditional jumps one. Elliott, not a name that anyone outside racing will remember for very long and most have already forgotten, can even stay at the yard.

If you spend a lifetime in racing, it’s both easy and understandable to suppose it occupies the centre of the universe. A correspondent for whom I generally have great respect suggested that if a stranger were approached in the street now, and asked for his or her most vivid racing memory, or ‘story’, ‘that bloke sitting on the dead horse’ would be an automatic response. I’m not sure about that but in any case what would be the alternative? ‘Oh, I dunno, that chirpy jockey with the English and Italian name, Frankie, Frankie…..’ Or maybe, digging deep into a memory bank teeming with public and personal recollections, minor triumphs and setbacks, the name Frankel would gain the day. Maybe. (I’m fair-minded enough to acknowledge that A P McCoy’s award as BBC Sports Personality of the Year runs counter to my argument, even allowing for the far from universal assumption that the ‘one person, one vote’ system applies.)

The Elliott foolishness was soon engulfed anyway, of course, not only by the tragedy of the pandemic and routine updates on Brexit but also the ‘royal’ interview with Oprah Winfrey. I shall say nothing on this beyond mentioning that, as far as the aforementioned editors were concerned, the story certainly had legs  –  and how.

But whether or not the Elliott misdemeanour is slim fare, it remains obvious that, in the modern phrase, racing needs to get over itself  –  and I say this as someone who is more than grateful for the living it has given me.

It needs to understand that people who think the sport is cruel will continue to think so, with or without an unfortunate episode like this one. And there is no middle ground. People who never go to a football match often express loyalty or fondness for a particular team, but people who don’t bet hardly ever mention racing. It’s a closed world to them. Royal Ascot and Cheltenham may prompt a little ‘outside’ interest, mainly because of the fashions and personalties on screen, but that’s it.

Times change. It was not ever thus. When I broadcast the sports bulletin on the Radio 4 Today programme in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brian Redhead was known to say: ‘Good morning, welcome to Today on Wednesday, June the Third, Derby day’. Brian, together with the Derby on a Wednesday, are long gone but it’s hard to imagine anyone saying that nowadays in any case.

A racing story for the masses? No problem. ‘What’s Gordon riding in the Derby? Gotta be his year, ain’t it?’ Whether Gordon Richards would break his long-running duck was a matter of national concern and in 1953 it finally happened, with Pinza beating the Queen’s horse Aureole in coronation year. Now THAT’S a story, a really big one with racing at its centre and the nation fully engaged.

Nor is it fanciful to suppose that, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne would have been just as anxious to know the identity of the Derby winner as the outcome of the Test Match. If the newspaper placards had favoured Bois Roussel’s 20/1 triumph over the washout at Old Trafford, no one in the Odeon or the Essoldo would have batted an eyelid.

That’s where racing stood in the public eye in those days and maybe it’s a pity we weren’t around. But one thing’s for sure: making a catastrophe out of a minor act of stupidity was never going to help and trying to second-guess the public’s attitude once a single photograph had done its job took too much for granted. As Rhett Butler might have said, ‘Frankly, my dears, they don’t give a damn’.

Ian’s latest book –  The Long Road From Portman Square – is available to buy in our shop here