And they’re off: Horse racing coming to a city close to you

What do you give the woman who has everything? If that woman is Queen Elizabeth II then anything involving horses would be the best bet, writes Brendan O'Brien

And they’re off: Horse racing coming to a city close to you

What do you give the woman who has everything? If that woman is Queen Elizabeth II then anything involving horses would be the best bet, writes Brendan O'Brien

This is an equine lover who was given a Shetland pony called Peggy when she was a four-year-old and, aged 92, kept alive a 73-year-old tradition by spending another week at Royal Ascot.

How obsessed is she?

Well, she attended the Trooping of the Colour on horseback every year through to the mid-80s and there have been at least two documentaries made about her love of the animal — one of which she even narrated.

She is the subject of three equestrian statues, two of them in Canada, and the British monarch hosts the Royal Windsor Horse Show every year. And there’s more.

A breeder and owner of racehorses, the only one of the British Classics to have eluded her has been the Epsom Derby but nothing highlights her devotion more than the fact that Royal Ascot isn’t even a formal duty. She chooses to go. So, step forward Peter Phillips, the queen’s eldest grandson and the man behind the concept of city-centre horse racing.

Yes, you read that right.

Phillips is chief executive of City Racing, a company with ambitions to stage horse races in a number of urban locations, and some of the initial whispers suggested that the long and wide expanses of The Mall and Constitution Hill that serve Buckingham Palace were among the arteries under consideration.

His grandmother would be able to take it all in from her balcony.

Chances are that some of the backers — the Jockey Club is a part-owner — would gag at the thought that this would be how the idea was sold and, in fairness, Phillips himself has played down the Palace link. The premise is that this is the ideal vehicle for a sport looking to drive up numbers among young people who tend to studiously ignore it rather than study the form.

The Jockey Club’s CEO Paul Fisher has expressed the hope that it will prove to be racing’s version of Twenty20. This is the shorter version of cricket that has attracted in droves the sort of millenials who have a disdainful view of tried and traditional formats.

It has, apparently, been years in the conceptual stage but the project moved on a few furlongs — three-and-a-half, to be exact — when a trial run was held on the road inside the Grand National track at Aintree. There were three races in all, staged at half-pace for a gathering of journalists and potential investors. The artificial surface, called Equaflow, was used for equestrian events at the 2012 London Olympics and feedback from jockeys and trainers was positive. Some said it compared favourably to all-weather tracks at Newcastle and Wolverhampton, but do we really need more sport thrust onto our streets like this?

Marathons and other athletics events have paved (sorry!) the way here; cycling has shut down many the avenue and bridge all over the world; Formula 1 has taken noise pollution in some built-up areas to obscene levels and London has already opened the likes of Horse Guards Parade, Greenwich Park, and Hyde Park to a raft of sports for the Games six years ago.

It used to be that sport ‘had its place’. It was a pastime, a coda to society’s more central themes, but the proliferation of money has prompted it to infiltrate all sectors of modern life. It is unrelenting in its appetite to colonise our attention and city-centre horse racing is merely the latest example of how consumers are to force-fed. Not interested? Tough. It’s happening right outside your office/door/coffee shop.

There will always be those locals fuming at the disruption caused by a marathon but they are at least mass-participation events that promote exercise and healthy living. Estimates are it could take 72 hours for a city horse race to be set up, run and dismantled. That’s a lot of fuming commuters for what is essentially a private enterprise. Add to that the likelihood of animal welfare protests, the safety measures required for an event involving a number of thoroughbreds as well as thousands of spectators and support staff and there is clearly a number of tricky hurdles to be cleared before we’re left with a trail of horse manure along our city streets.

“You’re always going to get a certain amount of questioning about a new concept and it’s up to us to talk to all the constituents and get rid of any potential misconceptions,” Phillips said in the Racing Post this week. Ultimately, where there’s a will there tends to be a way. Moreso when there is money behind it.

The first races are to be revealed in January. It was rumoured Paris had already been close to hosting a maiden run prior to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe last month. Dubai, as a city with rich links to the racing game and one with no shortage of vast thoroughfares, is another likely track.

There may be the odd false start but this is happening.

Get the dustpan and brush ready.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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