Horse racing, the Sport of Kings exists in an odd netherworld

Chances are that, like the vast majority of those who delve into the sports page for a daily dose of sustenance, your annual digression into the world of horse racing has come and gone in the past week.

Horse racing, the Sport of Kings exists in an odd netherworld

A flutter on the Aintree Grand National aside, maybe, and that’s our lot for most of us. The Flat season? What the hell is that?

It’s an odd netherworld i n which the Sport of Kings exists. If it was represented in a sports team photo it would appear as a head shot photoshopped into the corner. It is an afterthought of a player. The Steve Heighway of the industry in that it is so often a mere substitute to the favourite, regardless of how well it plays.

And last week was the perfect example of what it has to offer.

The four days that make up the Cheltenham Festival never fail to deliver, but 2015 was a cut above again even if the Wednesday was something of a letdown. After Tuesday an d the par ade of victories for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh, the second day was always likely to fall somewhat short, but the event in its entirety will stand the test of time. Again.

Mullins’ achievement in claiming a festival record eight winners across the four days was, in itself, worthy of our attention and the manner in which Douvan, Faugheen and Wicklow Brave destroyed quality fields will hardly be equalled anywhere in the sporting world in an Irish context, unless Joe Schmidt delivers the Webb Ellis trophy to Dublin next November 1.

And, while we’re at it, if Mullins isn’t named Philips Manager of the Year next December when the annual event takes place in the Shelbourne Hotel, it will be a travesty. For him to win would be entirely fitting, not just for what he has achieved, but in going some way towards rectifying a ridiculous imbalance in the award’s history.

‘The Philips’ has been held every year since 1982 and only once in that time – in 2000 when John Oxx got the nod for training Sinndar to a unique treble of Epsom Derby, Irish Derby Stakes and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – has the award been claimed by someone in the horse racing industry. Amateur golf and Formula One have won it as often, which says it all.

So why this general indifference to the gee-gees?

In fairness, it has been with us since someone first landed on the idea to jump nags over obstacles and wager a shilling or a jug of mead on the outcome. “The swindling, dangerous and absurd practise of steeple-chasing, things merely got up to by publicans and horse-dealers to pillage the unwary and enrich themselves,” said the London Times in 1838.

There is something about the language used that may be a barrier to the uninitiated, too. Who outside the sport, for instance, has any clue what a furlong is anymore? Then there are terms like ‘getting schooled’ or ‘tanking’, which carry negative connotations in any other field but which in horse racing are words and phrases that suggest progress.

The gambling arm is one that clearly doesn’t sit well with everybody either. Allegations of insider training and doping have also done their bit to sully the sport’s image – though it is far from alone in that sense – and then there is the pertinent fact that muck and horse dung simply aren’t ultra fashionable in this day of glitz and razzmatazz.

Mark Twain once observed that “it is the difference of opinion that makes horse races” but the same could be said for pretty much every sport. The true beauty of horse racing is that, fundamentally, it has hardly changed a jot since the London Times delivered its scathing verdict in print all of two centuries ago.

These days it is multi-millionaire businessmen like Michael O’Leary or Rich Ricci who own the horses - and the money being wagered on races would have likely funded the running of the British Empire – but the races themselves remain a simple matter of first-past-the-post, even if the ability to predict who that will be remains as frustratingly elusive as ever.

Football at the elite level is dominated by an increasingly precious few clubs; hurling and Gaelic football are now pastimes where the haves and have-nots are segregated; rugby’s already small pool is being further roped off by cash, and even the cricket crowd are looking to maintain a cosy cartel by shutting minnows like Ireland out of future World Cups.

There were shades of a growing gap between the big boys and the rest last week with the likes of Mullins and Paul Nicholls claiming such large slices of the prize-winning pie but, of the 27 races, a third were won by horses with odds starting between 11/1 and 33/1. Gamblers would disagree, but that unpredictability should be cherished now more than ever.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob

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