Champions may be great for racing, but does it mean that prospective opponents would rather stand in their boxes munching on their expensive food than take their chances in the bull-ring? The disappointing, in terms of quantity, six horse Paddock Stakes field and the lacklustre subscription to this past Monday’s Need For Speed sprint raises questions about programming and processes. And should owners be targeted with nomination requests rather than just the trainers?
The dramatic withdrawal of the Mike De Kock superstar Igugu from the Gr1 TBA Paddock Stakes field for this Saturday has left just six runners chasing the prestigious title and the R1 million purse. Former TBA Chairman Advocate Altus Joubert, who was largely instrumental in having the stake set at this level, must be banging his head against the wall in frustration as he realises that his dream has somehow not had the desired effect of attracting bumper fields. Joubert’s hopes in fact extended beyond the Paddock Stakes to the dream that all Group 1 races would carry a stake of a minimum of R1 million.
The absence of a clamour by connections to be part and parcel of a momentous day and prestigious race is strange indeed. But that is not to say that the six remaining ladies are not worthy of chasing the Paddock Stakes trophy. To the contrary, they represent a quality spread of amongst the best of the fairer sex. It is just quite puzzling trying to fathom out why more owners and trainers didn’t see their way clear to even trying to beat, or at the worst, run a place to the Horse Of The Year. The temptation of a second placed cheque of R200 000 odd as well as the future beneficial prospects of the bid-raising black type – all the way down to third place – on a sales catalogue page obviously did not do the trick. With the stakes issue in the Western Cape a longstanding sore-point, one can only wonder if it is an awareness issue or was it a considered decision to avoid the challenge?
Assuming that the Igugu fear factor was the major driver amongst connections, then Mike De Kock’s oft argued debate calling for later acceptance dates may well be worth another look. The final feature fields for the 7 January, which includes this fillies Group 1, as well as the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate and the Politician Stakes , went final on Thursday 29 December. That is fully ten days before the big day and as Igugu has just shown, racehorses, not unlike their owners and trainers, are fickle and fragile flesh and blood. Things can go wrong – and Murphy doesn’t discriminate against 1-5 favourites and major drawcards.
The Paddock Stakes betting will be revised with big deductions applicable. As one bookmaker put it, the absence of the superstar is likely to ultimately generate more interest in the race itself but the real impact of the Igugu withdrawal will be on the J&B Met where she is 15-10 in the ante-post. Mike De Kock knows well that he has a moral obligation to act quickly now to dispel uncertainty about her participation in the big race or to clarify her well-being. It is a tough call, but the champion trainer will do the right thing.
It may well be hindsight, but had we gone to final acceptance in the course of this past week, we may just have seen a maximum field in the Paddock Stakes. And on the flipside of this argument, what exactly have the racing gods done with the final fields since they published them a week ago? Marketing and promotion? Nah. Opened the tote betting? Nah. Got them into sundry high-profile external publications? Nah. Nah.Nah.Nah.Nah.
In support of the contention that the matter of support for races is an awareness issue, one only needs to look at the Var Syndicate sponsored Need For Speed sprint at Kenilworth on Monday. Just five horses went to post for this generously pursed conditions race for three year olds. Yes, the first cheque was R99 457, and winning Jooste Racing Manager Derek Brugman admitted in the post-race formalities that they had taken their chances with the well weighted newly blinkered Champion Two Year Old of last season, Delago Deluxe as the opposition had not looked inspiring. The Joostes also picked up the second cheque of R30 978 courtesy of Joey Ramsden’s Lake Geneva. Not bad for 60 seconds worth of effort in beating three moderate contemporaries.
Brugman also made the pertinent observation in his acceptance speech that while we breed for speed in South Africa, there are just no sprint races for the three year olds in this period in the Cape. If that is accurate, and I do not doubt that it is, where are the other three year old sprinters down South?
The irony of the lack of support is further twisted by the whinging and crying that goes on behind the scenes. You know the story – poor stakes in the Cape, lack of racing and racemeetings during the winter. If you own a three year old or an okayish filly and you didn’t take your chances in the Need For Speed Sprint or the Paddock Stakes, then maybe you should be asking your trainer a few questions.
I have not had sight of the current census, but the Western Cape apparently has an equine population of over 700, which in fairness when dissected doesn’t sound like a helluva lot. Take 20% off that for the lame and lazy, and with Aggravacious not getting any younger and Kind Lady having won her race, then the figures become quite sobering. With only 80 of them having run on Monday and another 75 on Wednesday this past week, and allocating the bulk of the figures to the top yards, we find the probable cause of the imbalance.
The worrying fact is that field sizes may not concern the purists. For this elite group, small fields can still provide great entertainment and intriguing contests.It is all about the gambling rand and the direct negative impact and drag on betting turnover and the retention and recruitment of potential sponsors is much more concerning, though.
The TBA got involved in the Paddock Stakes sponsorship by virtue of their sublimely custodial role in the future of the South African breeding industry. The Var Syndicate were leaders and innovators with their generous gesture of the introduction and support of a speed series. After Monday’s damp squib, one can only speculate about their continued commitment to race sponsorship. A full page advert in the Computaform Express and some branding on-course may not have been the sum total of the upside that they anticipated when they signed on the dotted line.