In its usual, almost apologetic style, the new British Flat season on turf will flicker into life at Doncaster on Saturday with the Lincoln Handicap. This year, the lack of fanfare in the country that gave organised horse racing to the world does not feel entirely misplaced.
The campaign will begin without an obvious star to pin early hopes and dreams upon, since Baaeed is already settling in to his new life as a stallion while Little Big Bear, last year’s champion juvenile colt and 2,000 Guineas favourite, did not race beyond six furlongs at two, or any later than August. Nor is there any immediate sign that Desert Crown, unraced since winning the Derby last June, will be back on a track as a four-year-old this summer.
While the blossoming of new talents as the season unfolds is one of its great fascinations, it will be a considerable surprise if anything emerges over middle distances in Europe to match Japan’s brilliant Equinox, whose defeat of Westover, last year’s Irish Derby winner, in the Sheema Classic at Meydan on Saturday was one of the outstanding individual performances of recent years. The ease with which Equinox dominated a useful field was extraordinary to behold and we can only hope his connections will set aside concerns about the likelihood of easy ground and point him towards the Arc at Longchamp in October.
This season will have the first Royal meeting at Ascot since the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the depth, or otherwise, of the King’s commitment to maintaining at least something of a royal presence on the turf should become apparent. The sale of nearly 20 mares at December’s breeding stock auction at Tattersalls was not auspicious, but the recent addition of the Queen Consort as official co-owner of the King’s horses, including Slipofthepen, an interesting dark horse for the Guineas on Coronation day, is a more positive sign.
It will be Frankie Dettori’s final season in the saddle, as the public face of the sport for the past 30 years takes in most of the season’s major stopping-off points one last time. There is already talk of Dettori extending his career by a few days to include the Melbourne Cup after the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in November, but unlike one of Elton John’s retirement tours, this, it seems, is definitely it.
Dettori bagged his first big-race win of the year in the Dubai Turf at Meydan and – assuming he does not pick up a ride in the Kentucky Derby on 6 May – will turn his attention to the Classics at Newmarket and Epsom in the early months of the new campaign.
It feels somewhat symptomatic of a season that is still awaiting its major plotlines that the Derby, the most famous of all Britain’s Flat races, is still without a sponsor, a little less than 10 weeks before it is due to be run.
Cazoo, the second-hand car website that took over from Investec – after a similarly extended wait – two years ago decided not to take up an option to extend, and the search for a “blue-chip” – ie non-bookie – sponsor has proved fruitless.
The apparent determination to avoid a bookmaker’s branding on the Epsom Classic may seem a little over-dramatic, given it is invariably the biggest Flat race of the year in terms of betting turnover. But the public and political mood around gambling in general remains febrile, to say the least. Publication of the long-awaited white paper on reforms to gambling law, which was supposedly “imminent” when the last Flat season closed in early November, seems, if anything, to be even further away.
Last week offered another reminder of why some certainty and fresh rigour in the legislative framework around betting, gaming and other forms of gambling is long overdue. Platinum Gaming, the parent company of Unibet, which has racing sponsorships including the Champion Hurdle and the Nicky Henderson stable, was fined £2.94m by the Gambling Commission for a series of breaches for “social responsibility and anti-money laundering failures”, while 32Red Limited, formerly a significant sponsor on the all-weather in particular, was fined near £4.2m for similar failings.
Both firms are ultimately owned by Kindred Group, one of the industry’s biggest gambling businesses. 32Red was found to have “failed to identify and protect potential problem gamblers”, including one individual who “was allowed to deposit £43,000 and lose £36,000 within seven days”. Platinum Gaming allowed individuals who had self-excluded or were blocked from 32Red to register on their site.
There is no indication on the Commission’s website of whether the failures involved betting, gaming products such as slots and roulette, or both, although it has previously acknowledged that “higher risk products typically provide players with the opportunity for fast-paced, repetitive and chance-based games which are available 24 hours a day.”
But some of the damaging publicity that surrounds such cases will attach itself to racing. So unless or until the government finally gets around to introducing a fit-for-purpose regime on betting and gaming, if a bookie is the only option for a Derby sponsor, it may be better to go with no sponsor at all.