Whoever thought so many people felt so strongly about the Flat Jockeys Championship, other than flat jockeys themselves?
Within the space of 24 hours after the news had leaked in the Racing Post, I was accused of being a BHA patsy, a jockeys’ lackey, having personally mislead jockeys about the whip rule changes and having no thoughts of my own. That was nothing compared to the criticism reserved for Rod Street, Chief Executive of Great British Racing and British Champions Series, and a former Chairman of the PJA.
Rod is one of the most genuinely good guys that you could meet, but even his generally positive outlook must have been severely tested by some of the bilious comments aimed at his direction, and all for being party to an agreement to alter the duration of a championship having consulted with those to whom the championship belongs.
And they were consulted. All flat jockeys who attended a BHA Seminar in Spring 2014 – and that’s all of them bar 7lb claimers – had the idea presented to them and were asked their views. There was some criticism, some positive feedback, but largely not much comment at all.
The PJA Board were kept updated throughout, prior to approving it in December 2104. Key to that approval was various conversations with senior riders and, as importantly, a poll that was emailed to all members who we had an address for, asking them for their view – did they agree with the proposed changes or not? 66% agreed, although turnout was admittedly low.
It’s never ideal when you’re planning the launch of something and it leaks 24 hours before the launch, but whilst we fully expected criticism the level of vitriol in some quarters genuinely surprised me.
In some ways it was a pleasant surprise that the change generated so much vitriol because only last autumn so many people were saying that the Jockeys Championship was an irrelevance and it only mattered to Richard Hughes. It was especially positive to see so many flat trainers take such an interest. Trainers, like everyone else, are fully entitled to their view, but in the same way they changed their championship criteria to what suited them, if jockeys are generally content to change their own criteria then frankly it’s up to them too.
One trainer bemoaned the fact that the change would encourage the top jockeys to spend winters overseas, having forced his own title-challenging jockey overseas a few years earlier. This criticism also overlooks the fact that jockeys have been heading overseas before the end of the season for years.
Another asked could £100k be spent on something better? Probably. £100k is a lot of money – add what a good apprentice might earn his trainer over the course of a couple of seasons with what flat trainers collectively save by some of their number not paying their apprentices the travel expenses the Rules of Racing say they should and you wouldn’t be far off.
£100k would go a long way to paying for a private medical insurance scheme for jockeys. It could pay for retrospective sectional analysis to be provided for all our racecourses. I really hope racing can still find the funding for both, particularly the latter because betting turnover and profit are falling off a cliff and we need to address it, but the money wasn’t on the table for either of those.
Some of that criticism levelled at the changes was understandable, some of it justified. Some didn’t want change at all, others advocated change of a different nature. But a fair amount of the criticism was baffling, at times irrational, and one couldn’t help but conclude it was fuelled by matters other than the championship itself.
I don’t agree with everything Great British Racing has always done. For example, I didn’t agree with the creation of Champions Day, purely because I believed the ruin of the two year old autumn programme was too big a price to pay (although thankfully that is now on the way to being resolved).
Despite that, I feel they’ve been misunderstood, due in no small part to their initial title of Racing for Change. It was a daft title and poor starting point for a small organisation whose remit was to market and promote the sport off what is, let’s face it, a hardly ambitious budget of about £1m.
So, the championship did not start on the last Saturday of March. The flat season, for what that definition is worth, still started on Town Moor that day. Following two days at Donny there was no flat racing at all yesterday, then we have three days of all weather before a rare day of turf racing at Musselburgh on Good Friday.
On the same day the All Weather season concludes on All Weather Champions Day at Lingfield.
Luke Morris will, almost certainty, deservedly collect £10k for being the leading all-weather rider over the winter, whilst competing for prizemoney on the day totalling £1m. Don’t tell the traditionalists though…
That’s not to underestimate the importance and worth of tradition, as tradition is one of the positive things that British Racing has going for it and is vital to international investment in the sport. But too many have lost all perspective over these changes in my view.
It’s not like the Trials meetings at Newmarket, Newbury and Sandown will no longer take place, and if trainers/owners want the top jockeys they employ to ride on those days they’ll be there, because jockeys go where the owners and/or trainers want them to be. Such as Australia when the jockey would prefer to be battling out the championship.
The Racing Post Trophy will still take place, as will the November handicap. The racing press pack will be there, if they’ve got over their jet lag flying back from the Breeders’ Cup, aren’t going to Australia or aren’t at Aintree or Wincanton as the jump season gets into full swing.
Challengers for the title will still ride at 9 meetings a week, some riding seven days a week, some squeezing their nine meetings in to six days. Most will drive themselves upwards of two thousand miles a week, earning £118 a ride, 7% of win prizemoney and 3% of place prizemoney. They’ll be paying 10% to their agent, paying their valet, paying Weatherbys, paying their PJA subs, paying for their physio, paying for their insurance, paying for their fuel. If they’re an apprentice they’ll also be giving their boss half of all their earnings.
It will still take guts, determination, commitment and drive to be champion jockey, but it will be slightly less of an outright war of attrition than it was before. Though in saying that Richard Hughes has missed the whole of April (through suspension and injury) for two of his championships and it was still immensely hard and physically draining.
Even with the shortened period, jockeys will be riding at as least as many meetings as they were prior to 1988, before Sunday racing, before all weather racing, and before evening racing every night except Sundays. Yes it breaks with tradition but we don’t always stick with tradition and change isn’t always a bad thing.
The bottom line is it is the jockeys’ championship. It’s theirs. It’s changed. It’s happened. Not all jockeys agreed, not all are happy and some even think it’s “a load of crap”. And I never asked Lester Piggott for his view. But the Racing Post did. He said it was “about time”.
With the rewards, spread out as they are, the welfare project and the promotion behind the new championship, I genuinely and firmly believe it will be really positive for jockeys and for racing.
And if I’m wrong then, and only then, will I hang my head in shame…