Friend of the blog and all round good egg, Michael Andrews, returns with a new guest post, this time looking at the role of the starter at the Cheltenham Festival…
Cheltenham: Why Are We Not Talking About How The Starter Saved Lives?
Whilst the Cheltenham Festival is now being ridiculously vilified as the super-spreading villain of the nation’s current Coronavirus pandemic, it has somewhat shockingly sidestepped the yearly stream of animal rights noise. Although one would certainly overshadow the other, there is an argument to suggest the latter is down to the actions of a man unjustly damned by the sport he was trying to protect.
Robbie Supple, an ex-jockey and now BHA starter of some of the highest-profile races in the calendar, became one of the biggest talking points over the Cheltenham Festival. He reached for his false-start flag a total of eight times across twenty-eight races, and three times apiece on Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s more races than were won by top trainer of the week, Willie Mullins, or Gordon Elliott.
He became the target of a social media storm; forums online called him ‘a disaster of a man’, whilst Twitter suggested the ‘clown’ could do with an ‘arse kicking’ at best, and was unprintable at worst. And to anyone who tuned into Twitter alongside the Virtual Grand National last weekend, you’ll share my wish to have had £1 every time someone tweeted along the lines of ‘will there be a false start from Supple to make it realistic?’
I put my hands up, I struggled just like everyone else to understand his reasoning at times. I was on track for all four days and felt at least half were unwarranted false starts, and yet the knee-jerk barrage of hate he received was unjustifiable. I don’t need to explain why online bullying and just general degenerate hooligan hate is unacceptable, but I am going to explain why I personally believe Robbie Supple firstly did what he did, and secondly, why his actions prevented horse racing – and in particular, Cheltenham – from another animal welfare PR disaster. One that would have surely strengthened the vitriolic COVID-19 claims currently been chucked at Cheltenham.
In 2015, I wrote a piece arguing that the softer the ground, the safer Cheltenham was. At the time, the recent evidence supported my claim; the harder the ground, the more equine fatalities. However, that assertion has been challenged since, with 2018 seeing seven deaths (the joint-maximum we’ve had of late, and the second time it has reached that figure in three years), despite the ground being generally soft and heavy.
Yet, whilst that article was met with fire and fury, it sparked a conversation with a learned friend. He believed it was the speed of the festival that had a greater effect on the life and death of our horses. Although I wasn’t particularly receptive at the time, I couldn’t refute it out of hand. It also complemented my going-centric research as, the quicker the ground, the quicker the horses can go. Speed and ground were not necessarily mutually exclusive, despite 2018.
Consequently, if you were an actor representing an authority under pressure to uphold the highest standards of equine welfare, and you believed that race speed could have an impact on the welfare of equine participants, you would absolutely do what was in your power to ensure that speed was dampened.
Getting where I’m going? Robbie Supple’s actions, of slowing, frustrating and generally calming the race from the start had an impact on the entire festival. He set the tone right from the top of the show, in the Supreme on Tuesday; this was not to be a mad one with the lads, but a controlled carnival illustrating the skill and tactics of jockeyship, celebrating the best in equine talent, and ultimately protecting the welfare of the most prized national hunt horses in Britain and Ireland. To frustrate the speed from the start would ultimately protect the lives of our equine and human heroes alike. Now all humans do make mistakes, and I’m not defending every single decision and every false start he created, particularly as there are realistic arguments that suggest at points he was as fallible as a human. However, I will defend his overarching strategy, particularly on the first two days.
He manipulated the only opportunity he had to affect the outcome, like a magician placing a thought in your head but still in essence in God’s hands in the hope that it worked. The results suggested the magician had worked his trick to almost perfection. He may have used a somewhat blunter and uglier tool than you would have imagined a delicate process required, but if it works?
Let me take you through my personal recreation of how I feel Supple’s diary went over the four days:
- Supreme – An important one. Set the tone for the week, no Marodima’s here.
- Arkle – Cheeky reminder. I’m in charge, particularly with half the field known front-runners.
- Champion Hurdle – Yes boys, this is still a thing. Even in the big one.
- Coral Cup – Right, time for a reminder as some of you lads weren’t in the Grade 1s yesterday.
- Cross Country – There’s some French lads just flown in for this, better make it clear.
- Champion Bumper – That Fred Winter was far too fast, less of that.
- Merriebelle Plate – Hmm… just checking in.
- Martin Pipe – Boys race. Says it all.
I’m guessing you still however have two key questions. Firstly, how can any of this be suggested as more compelling than the ‘fact’ he was clearly just ‘attention seeking’ as some have said, or for some other possible or coincidental reason.
Consider the industry context of the Cheltenham Festival 2020. The Grand National the year before had seen its first death for six years, allowing the hue and cry of the screens-hungry papers to finally reach its climax after so many years of near-misses. Saint Are and Balthazar King were not newsworthy whilst blood pumped apologetically through their veins. Last year, Up For Review had been the present they had all been so impatiently waiting for.
Just weeks before this year’s festival, an incredible welfare report was published by the Horse Welfare Board. (you can read this here>>>) It came as a result of mounting pressure stemming in part from the 2018 petition for a new independent racehorse welfare body, which received over 100,000 signatures and was subsequently debated in Parliament. It made public recommendations that the BHA must be seen to adhering to.
In 2018, the steady decline of racehorse deaths suddenly u-turned and went up, prompting media coverage from across the political spectrum in early 2019. Unsurprisingly, the BHA were once again put under pressure to defend racing’s welfare record.
However most spectacularly, the BHA’s Cheltenham Review, conducted after the 2018 festival, which saw well-documented headline recommendations such as decreasing the National Hunt Chase distance, included the action for: ‘Cheltenham Racecourse to work with the BHA and their Media rights representatives, to develop precise race time sectionals to assess correlation between race pace and risk via predictive modelling.’ In other words, if we can find a correlation between the speed of a race and the likelihood of fatalities, we will do what is in our power to do something about it.
Outstandingly, if you look back, Robbie Supple’s actions actually just illustrate a continuation of actions he took in 2019, likely as a result of that review. The first three races of the 2019 festival were all standing starts, and the Close Brothers later in the card made it a majority-standing start opening day. It had made such a lasting impression on one forum user by 14:30 that first afternoon that they had already created a thread titled: ‘The Cheltenham starter surely the lowlight of the Festival’. Let’s hope for their sake they were conveniently self-isolating away from the telly, the radio and all newspapers during the 2020 festival.
It was a BHA tactic. And arguably it has made a difference. Picking two races that had standing starts in 2020 and flying ones in 2018, both the 2020 Champion Hurdle and Champion Bumper had slower times despite being run on officially faster ground than the 2018 renewals. That’s understandably circumstantial evidence that can surely be picked apart by time and going-stick gurus far better placed to understand and explain away the seconds than me, but my argument has already implied Supple’s actions were there to have attitudinal effects too.
What is incontrovertible is that it certainly has not had a negative impact on the welfare of any participants, even if viewers may disagree on whether it has had a negative impact on the Cheltenham glitz. Yet if you say it ruined the famous ‘Cheltenham roar’ for the second year running, I will fight you on every single one of your 280 characters. I’ve been there both times, and the over-eager crowd blow up far before Supple has had a chance to start waving the yellow. Even when the field do go on time, the roar has already started to shrivel by 13:29.
Without the public reaction, the actions of Robbie Supple would have been quietly, appropriately lauded in official circles, but given how furious the lexicon became, a public explanation may have been more apt. The impact of just one equine fatality cannot be understated, despite the global pandemic that developed dramatically during the course of the week. Any budding marketers out there will know how ranking at the top of google for a search is the SEO holy-grail. A search of the name of the sole Cheltenham fatality into Google, Copper Gone West, who tragically injured herself on the flat when hampered, largely does not bring up the typical overwhelming domination of sensationalist headlines. The top five searches are dominated by links to her form, supplied by racing websites and of those on the first page, just the Daily Star, Gloucestershire Live and Peta feature with horse death news. Animal Aid has to settle for page two.
This is exactly the action we should be getting behind, supporting, and celebrating. It is one thing to disparage the actions of our stakeholders or industry leaders when they make a mistake, but to mock and belittle them when we misunderstand their success?
For the health and well-being of our stars and our sport, a standing start is a consequence I am willing to accept. Aren’t you?
Thanks for reading,
(can be followed on twitter HERE>>>)