Phew… what a week! The Altior saga has again given those who cry ‘foul’ to take a pot shot at racing and the modern phenomenon that is bookmakers linking with the top trainers. That’s sad, frustrating, annoying even, and for the sport’s governing body, there is still a big job to be done to increase transparency.
What’s in a name?
It’s sad to see the fragile Waiting Patiently will have to spend longer in his box before his next run than we all hoped would be the case, after such a promising Tingle Creek performance last month. If ever a horse name could be changed, then Ruth Jefferson might want to do so by horse deed poll (I know, I know) to something like See You Next Week, or Takeshisracingwell (note maximum use of 18 characters!), for his racing moniker is proving unfortunate. Let’s hope we see him back with a vengeance next season in the top 2m-2m4f races.
For f(ive day Festival)’s sake
And while we’re on… Cheltenham… or should I Cheltenhmmmm…
Not that I don’t LOVE the Festival. It’s one of the things that drew me into watching the sport way back in the days of bottomless ground, The Dikler, Pendil, Lanzarote, Comedy Of Errors and the incomparable Sir Peter O’Sullevan calling them home, and I’d honestly say that thus far in my working life, I spent my most cherished four days there for radio at the 2010 renewal.
However, I have a problem with a five-day Festival. A big one. You can have too much of a good thing you know, and that good thing has already been compromised to some extent with the various additions to the cards in the 21st Century.
I know that Punchestown week lasts what appears to be forever… I’ve been over a few times… and while it’s good, it’s not Cheltenham. For me, four days is stretching things quite far enough. If there is to be any adjustment to proceedings then I’d be changing the race times to have at least 45 minutes between each one, but keeping the same number of races.
Anyone who is a regular on those fab four days in March will tell you that getting around at the track is a nightmare. You have to queue for the loo, the beers and food, the betting, and last year I’m sure I saw people queuing for the queues.
Spreading the day out by bringing the start time forward again, and giving everyone that bit more time to do what they need to between races, would surely be appreciated by those at the track.
I know the meeting is a huge earner for the sport, Jockey Club Racecourses in particular, and that an extra day would potentially up the ante by another 20% or so, but at what cost to the soul of the Festival?
The other spring festivals are very good, don’t misunderstand me, but Cheltenham should always be a cut above, and should always strive to put on the best races in each class. It’s been stretching the truth on that one a little already. So, a further day that includes such mouthwatering action as an ‘amateur conditionals limited selling handicap for horses who have won on the Flat going right-handed in September and are not trained by Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott’, or whatever is the plan, would be extracting the proverbial from the public payers of premium prices.
Ultimately, five days stinks of a bumper (excuse the pun) bookies’ benefit.
Rhino Rob rises to his biggest challenge
Turning to rugby league, how awful it has been to digest the news about Rob Burrow over the past few weeks, but what an amazing and moving response we have seen from people both within and outside the sport.
It is testimony to the esteem in which he is held by supporters that a pre-season friendly, originally billed as his great mate and fellow Leeds Rhinos legend Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s benefit game, has sold out.
While ‘JJB’ would, I am sure, have drawn a big crowd after his tireless efforts for the club over eons, I can think of hardly any (well actually, none) that have been sold out in my lifetime as a fan of the sport. There’s no doubt that the ‘Burrow factor’ is equally as important in this.
I vividly recall being present at Wilderspool, as coincidence would have it, when the little fella threw dummy after dummy to get across for his first Leeds try, almost beneath the feet of myself and my great pal and media colleague Phil Caplan. We knew that there was a buzz about Rob and the other Rhinos youngsters, such as Danny McGuire, being brought through by then-coach Daryl Powell, but neither of us could have imagined just how good he, they, would become.
It’s been terrible to read of Rob’s diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease, and to see his emotional interview with Tanya Arnold on the BBC (and immense credit to Tanya for keeping it together herself, as that must have been so tough to do). After all the effort, energy and entertainment he provided, all those memorable moments that went with it, it really does not seem fair.
The shock and sadness among Rob’s former teammates has been palpable, and immense credit should go to the Leeds club itself for how they have handled and supported him. Not only that, but the reaction from sportspeople who you would never have dreamed of as being RL fans, plus the supporters of other clubs, has had me choked on reading, and must have been overwhelming and at the same time comforting for the man himself.
Throughout those ‘golden years’, win or lose, Rob would always give his response to a performance when called upon to do so. I can only speak for my own experiences here, but he never once turned down a request for print, radio or TV. He also made a memorable appearance at my local cricket club, Rawdon, in the summer of 2018 when he talked frankly about his career. The club has had many star names do likewise over the years, but with Rob’s manner, wit and honesty, plus some great stories, the members are still adamant that he is the best guest they’ve ever had.
From a personal point of view, watching on and reporting on so many of the games that ‘beep beep’ played in, it never ceased to amaze me how a man so small and lightweight would throw himself in front on any opposing player, no matter how huge, in the line of duty. He played with immense courage, and he will face this just the same. I wish him and his family all the very best in their battle with this terrible disease. If there is any justice in life, medical science will come up with a way to overcome this in time for Rob to benefit.
It’s great to see Sky Sports committing to cover this match. If they have been present at a benefit game before, I can’t recall it, and again it shows how much these two players have meant to the game, while the emergence from retirement of Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock, to name just three of the players’ former colleagues, can only add to what looks sure to be an amazing emotional experience.
Ending on a brighter note, what a performance by England to turn around their first Test defeat into a relatively rare recent away win for the nation at Newlands.
To the backdrop of Table Mountain, Jimmy Anderson delivered with the ball yet again; Dominic Sibley, whom I had seen make a major contribution to Warwickshire’s defeat of Yorkshire at York in last season’s County Championship, worked tirelessly and got due reward with an unbeaten century with the bat; and then there was Ben. Oh Ben.
And what a player Ben Stokes really is. There is absolutely every reason to compare this man to Sir Ian Botham, boyhood cricketing hero to many (myself included). In my lifetime watching cricket, there hasn’t been a better all-rounder playing for England than either of these. Sorry Freddie, who was absolutely brilliant on his day too, but for me, Beefy ‘n’ Ben won more matches than you managed sporting the three lions.
Yes, of course they were different players. Of the pair, and I speak purely of Test cricket here, if pushed I’d still have a Botham at his best with the ball. And, while he was absolutely outstanding at his belligerent best with the bat, I’d now have to say that even he’d take a slight second-best to Stokes with willow in hand.
Of course, it’s not just about what you score, it’s also about context, about how you get them, about playing to situations. Both (as opposed to ‘Both’) have been able to do that, but perhaps it could be argued that Stokes is now nudging slightly ahead in that respect, with two particular knocks in the past six months elevating that feeling. I also hesitate slightly as I write that, partly through deference to the cricket hero of my youth, and partly also because the more recent can sometimes feel more significant than a fading memory over the passage of time.
I know, Sir Ian scored 14 Test ‘tons’ including a double, and his batting heroics at Headingley (did I mention I was there?) and Old Trafford in ’81 are rightly in the annals. And yes, I also know that the fiery, flame-haired incumbent is still six centuries shy of the great man. He is also currently 41 Tests short of Botham, and at the rate he is going with 3,906 Test runs to his name, he looks a shoo-in to pass his predecessor’s total of 5,200, if fitness affords him the same number of Tests (102).
There is little, possibly nothing, more to say about that monumental knock at Headingley in August, and while last week could hardly be expected to be in that mould, he scored runs in both innings, the second knock providing his team (and skipper Joe Root) with the impetus to declare. Then of course, he returned to scotch a very commendable Proteas rearguard by ripping out the tail to complete the job. Throw in five catches (if that’s possible?!) and you have a truly outstanding all-round cricketing performance. That’s Bentertainment!
Enough from me. Please do leave your comments and join the debate.
Until the next time… @JonathanDoidge