Ruby Walsh: BHA’s rigid approach partly to blame for Hill controversy

Ground, the solid surface of the earth! Who thought it could provoke such outrage as it does in sport?
Ruby Walsh: BHA’s rigid approach partly to blame for Hill controversy

A silhouetted horse and jockey during the Coral Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury yesterday. Picture: PA

Ground, the solid surface of the earth! Who thought it could provoke such outrage as it does in sport? Too wet or too dry, too rough, too slick. The grass is too long or too short, the greens are too fast or too slow, the rough is too thick, the goal mouth too bare, it’s too soft for the ball to bounce, too hard for a horse to gallop on.

That natural surface created god knows when is never what everyone wants it to be. Why? Because it is natural, controlled and altered by nature. Humankind can mind it. Some people do, and they take great care and effort in doing so, particularly on pitches and golf courses, but they have the luxury of being damaged only by humans. Racecourses have the extra issue of being churned up by four-legged steeds and are often used when most other venues have been closed by nature.

I have never managed a stadium or a racecourse, but I guess the substantial cost of ground management influences some. A lousy pitch makes for a bad game, and people stop coming. Racecourses are no different. It is usually human neglect that affects this most, and when all is said and done, the essential part of any sporting venue is the surface. Why have a state-of-the-art venue and not a suitable surface?

Maintenance and repair of ground is costly and never gives a direct return on the investment, but its indirect income is surely measurable. Who pays a sub or a green fee for a golf course that is not manicured? It is simple in golf because everyone is playing, and golfers vote with their feet, but if Croke Park stopped mowing the grass, how long would it take for players and fans to revolt? One game is my guess.

How many punters have walked out of a racecourse and blamed the track for the spectacle they paid to view? Or left and complimented the track for the spectacle they witnessed? Not too many, because the expectation is that a sporting venue provides the correct surface, yet course alignment at some Irish tracks has been vastly superior to that at some UK venues for a while now.

A rigid approach to separate Flat and National Hunt tracks in the UK has stifled the racecourses’ use of the ground available to them, and last weekend it bit Ascot. The right track for the hurdle races would have been the Flat course, which had been watered and maintained through the long hot summer. Still, its use was never contemplated, so last weekend’s star attraction, Constitution Hill, never made it onto the unsuitably dry jump track.

Ascot’s approach was racing’s loss but Newcastle’s gain as he heads north this afternoon to join Epatante in the Fighting Fifth. That’s not until 2.10pm, two hours after Gowran Park starts the day with a bang with a beginners’ chase that could be a graded affair at Christmas.

Journey With Me, Minella Cocooner, Whatdeawant and Classic Getaway all possess the potential to be top-class chasers, and they will set the pulses racing to warm the early birds at the Kilkenny venue.

Facile Vega skips the maiden hurdle, but Pink In The Park will face Kalanisi Star, and Inothewayyourthinkin will take on Spanish Harlem in the novice hurdle. There is no feature race, but it’s a card full of depth and potential for the enthusiast to enjoy.

Contrary to some opinion, we are not butchering our product in Ireland because one only has to look at the Coral Gold Cup and Rehearsal Chase at Newbury and Newcastle, at 3.05 and 3.25, to see what ridiculous race planning and anti-competitive sport looks like.

Somehow, the numbers of National Hunt foals born to the number of horses that end up in training aren’t adding up. So, when one looks at the pyramid of horses in training and realises how small the top is, how could anyone possibly allow the same race for the same small group of top handicappers to take place 20 mins apart?

For me, these two handicap chases clashing signifies all that is wrong with British racing. It’s worse than the pattern problems because at least the winners of soft Grade 1s will clash at some point to make a contest, but these won’t.

Two fine races instead of one mega one but L’Homme Presse could have his work cut out to give 26lbs to Into Overdrive at Newcastle and Gericault Roque looks to have a beautiful weight at Newbury. The third race of similar ilk takes place on Sunday at Navan when the Troytown will start at 2.20, with 19 facing the starter. Its rating cap of 150 means it is slightly below the other in terms of quality but is possibly more competitive and Velvet Elvis will get my vote.

Like Saturday, Sunday has competitive action from early and has a beginners’ chase to almost rival Gowran with Fil Dor facing up to Saint Roi, Sea Ducor and Good Time Jonny. That’s before you even mention American Mike, who left a favourable impression on every one last month at Down Royal.

The World Cup may be in full flow but it won’t have my intention in the early afternoon for the next two days as Constitution Hill tops the bill and stars turn out everywhere in support.

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