It was an hour before the first race at Newcastle last Wednesday when word reached the weighing room of an update to the fixture list.
With the weather having an impact around the country and a meeting at Fontwell that coming Sunday under threat, the British Horseracing Authority’s racing department felt it prudent to formulate contingency plans.
The BHA needed a second fixture to support the main action at Cheltenham, which would be shown live on ITV. So there was an invitation to racecourse owners to make their pitch.
Only one bid arrived. It was from Newcastle, owned by Arena Racing Company.
In their portfolio of 16 courses, ARC have other all-weather venues: Southwell, which last month was temporarily put out of action with huge flood damage, and Wolverhampton, but these were never an option.
The decision to move Sunday’s raceday to Newcastle was deeply unpopular to jockeys
Hayley Turned stressed the difficulty of the jockey’s lifestyle and its heavy commitments
So it was back to Newcastle for the jockeys. They had been there the previous Friday and Saturday, then again on Tuesday. After Wednesday, with its eight-race card, they would be back on Friday, as well as the Sunday. Six trips to Gosforth Park, then, in 10 days. To say this decision was unpopular with jockeys would be an understatement.
The men and women who ply their trade primarily at the northern tracks don’t benefit from having drivers taking the slack for them on the motorways or have courses on their doorsteps.
Theirs is a hard profession, a relentless slog in search of winners while trying to maintain relationships. Say no to a trainer about riding a horse one day and that, most likely, will mean you won’t be asked to ride for them again in the future.
‘We can never plan anything,’ Hayley Turner told Mail Sport earlier this month. ‘If you get off a horse because you want to go and do something fun, you won’t get that ride back. Unless you are in the top 10 and you can pick and choose or afford to have the odd day off. But, really, I don’t think they can even say no. It’s hard (personally) but it’s harder for your family. The amount of weddings, christenings, barbecues, parties that you miss. You just have to say no all the time when you are invited. It’s difficult.’
On this occasion, the decision should have been taken out of the jockeys’ hands. If ever there was a time for someone, somewhere to look at the bigger picture and say enough is enough then it was on Sunday. The show does not always have to go on.
The reason for heightened emotions was obvious to all bar those who put their hands up for the extra fixture. Where on earth was the sense — or any semblance of compassion — in telling them they had to return to the scene of an incident that had such a profound effect on all?
Graham Lee, one of the most popular and respected figures riding, had suffered life-changing injuries in the first of those six fixtures in just over a week.
Newcastle was only racing that day because Doncaster — also owned by ARC — was waterlogged and nobody wanted to lose the two-day fixture that brings the curtain down on the Flat season.
But the moment Lee was taken to Royal Victoria Infirmary for assessment, the landscape changed. So what if the November Handicap didn’t take place? When Lee was hurt on Friday, the authorities should have stepped in and called the meeting off.
Graham Lee experienced a life-changing fall in the stalls at Newcastle on Friday, November 10
The jockey is deeply admired and well-liked in the sport, and his injury at the course is still emotionally charged
The mood in the weighing room was described by one rider as ‘pretty f****** horrendous’ the day after Lee’s fall and it had not improved by Wednesday. How could it? Lee’s desperate plight was a reminder to them all of how perilous their profession is. It could have been any of them.
But this isn’t just about the jockeys. What about the stalls handlers, who were a few feet away from Lee when he fell? Are they supposed to just keep doing their job — a very dangerous one, too — without giving a second’s thought to what happened?
How about the travelling head lads and lasses, the stable hands and the trainers who know and admire Lee? This, really, has affected everyone in racing. No matter which track you have attended since that dreadful moment on November 10, it’s all anyone has spoken about.
There are days when Newcastle comes alive, such as when it stages the Northumberland Plate in June and the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in December, and with its long straight and good surface, it’s a place where top yards like to introduce decent horses.
Nobody, though, would have missed a meeting there on Sunday. Those in authority will argue differently and say with 68 entries a purpose was served. There is more to life, however, than numbers and markets and it’s bewildering that it couldn’t be seen. This was a bad call.
It is two weeks since this column raved about the rich potential of Iroko, an embryonic novice chaser who had won his first start over fences without coming out of first gear. For his young trainers, Oliver Greenall and Josh Guerriero, Iroko is the kind of horse to warm them on freezing mornings.
Greenall and Guerriero are upwardly mobile and landed a big prize at Cheltenham last Friday — albeit fortuitously — when another novice, Homme Public, won a Grade Two event after the favourite JPR One capsized following the last obstacle.
But they will now have make strides this season without Iroko, who sustained a foot issue over the weekend.
He will make a full recovery and will be back this time next year but here was another reminder of what a fragile game this is. What a miss Iroko will be this winter.
Gordon Elliott-trained Coko Beach won the Troytown Handicap Chase on Sunday at Navan
The trainer (centre) posed with his 14 runners, the lion’s share preparing to race in the colours of Ryanair founder Michael O’Leary
Gordon Elliott broke his own world record at Navan last Sunday when saddling 14 of the 20 runners in the Troytown Handicap Chase.
It would have been 15 had Cavalry Master not been withdrawn at the start. Elliott’s horses made up four of the first five, including winner Coko Beach.
Nine of them were owned by Ryanair founder Michael O’Leary, running in the maroon silks of his Gigginstown Stud. It is four years since O’Leary said he was scaling down his interest in racing but this was the latest evidence that you should take his statements with a pinch of salt.
He wants to win as much as Elliott does. They are well suited to each other.