Racing looks for King George VI Chase boost after annus horribilis

Horse Racing

A full week before New Year's Eve, it appears horse racing will be wrestling with a hefty hangover as it enters 2012, the result of one bad story too many over the past 12 months.

Much of the year has been spent agonising over how best to respond to the Grand National, in which two horses died and the winning rider earned a five-day whip ban, but more stringent rules on whip use caused only fresh crisis and came close to provoking a strike among jockeys, while 2011 ended with lurid headlines about guilty verdicts in the latest corruption case.

Some sort of restorative tonic is plainly needed and racing might be lucky enough to get it on Boxing Day, when Kempton's King George VI Chase will feature the latest clash between Kauto Star and Long Run, with the hugely talented Master Minded thrown in for good measure. In the words of Channel 4's analyst Jim McGrath, it should be "a fantastic cocktail" which will leave us all feeling more cheerful and less oppressed.

McGrath, it should be said, does not buy into the idea that media coverage of racing has been unusually negative. "Are people not generally cynical about all sport?" he asks. "In boxing, there was the fight that wasn't a fight [between David Haye and Wladimir Klitschko], we've had cricket and match-fixing, football and racism. Are we any different?"

"All major sports are going to have issues at some point that make major news," says Nick Attenborough, a spokesman for Racing For Change, continuing the theme. "We've had our fair share of problems but it seems to me that the issues in racing are absolutely minute by comparison."

It is, of course, part of Attenborough's job to talk up the sport. A more cautious view of the recent poor publicity comes from Simon Clare, who has his own perspective as a representative of Coral bookmakers. "It's easy to underestimate the impact of these things because it's not immediate and it doesn't show up on any kind of barometer," he says.

"It's a subliminal thing but if people start to believe that racing is corrupt and the jockeys aren't really trying and the whip is an evil tool, those ideas can take root. The British Horseracing Authority's handling of the whole whip thing was so foolish. It wasn't so much shooting oneself in the foot as taking a machine gun to your feet – so unnecessary and so poorly handled." Clare has hopes that the BHA's incoming chief executive, Paul Bittar, will conduct his own review of the whip rules in the near future.

All three men point out that, purely in terms of what has happened on the track, 2011 has been outstanding for the sport, with Frankel's unbeaten run on the Flat a particular high point. The inaugural Champions' Day at Ascot coincided with controversy over the whip but must still be counted a success, with 76% of those present rating it among the best racedays they had attended, according to a survey published yesterday.

Wayne Rooney's entry into the sport as an owner, announced this week, has also generated positive coverage and Clare feels more should be done to capitalise on that. "The visibility of celebrity in racing is amazing," he says.

"In the wake of the news about Rooney, there could have been advertorials appearing about racing clubs and how you can afford to buy a horse at a lower level. They make much more use of celebrities in Formula One, where they're gathered together in one area and they can all be photographed. Racing almost allows them to creep in the back door and you might see occasional snaps of them being entertained in a box in the distance."

Still, the sport can expect to have a heartwarming tale to tell on Monday if McGrath is right about the likely outcome. "Long Run might be a bit sharper this time but, even when he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he always has an error in him," he says. "There's a flaw in his jumping technique. Under the conditions, I think the race will suit Kauto Star and, if he's in the same form as he was at Haydock, he'll be hard to beat." This is not what Clare wants to hear, as the Haydock race, in which Kauto Star beat Long Run last month, was "terrible" for his firm.

"It's interesting what's happened with Kauto Star," Clare says. "As he's become more vulnerable, he's become more popular. When he was more dominating, he was appreciated less but now it's like the latter days of Desert Orchid [another serial King George winner], when any victory is sung from the rooftops.

"The interest in this King George is going to be immense. Kempton is going to be rammed and, with the mild weather, the betting shops should be rammed as well. I think Kauto Star will be really well backed and he'll probably start shorter than he should do, around 2-1 against 6-4 for Long Run. The professionals will probably favour Long Run and will probably be right.

"Again, it's a bit like in Dessie's time, when the form students would be making a case for Kildimo or saying that Desert Orchid could never give all that weight to Panto Prince but the believers still won and they had their day again at Haydock."

Traditionally, bookmakers are supposed to greet expensive but popular outcomes with cheerful pieties about paying out with a smile and it being the perfect result for the sport's health. Clare is franker. "I think we'd much rather have Captain Chris win the race, to be honest. We'd prefer to be Scrooge this Christmas."

Powered by article was written by Chris Cook, for The Guardian on Friday 23rd December 2011 15.14 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010