top trainer Mark Johnston says Flat racing in Britain will be diluted by major changes to the jockeys’ championship.
He says there will be even less incentive for top riders like Grade One globetrotter Ryan Moore – winner of last year’s Melbourne Cup on Protectionist and a string of big races around the world – to compete in this country.
Middleham-based Johnston spoke out after Great British Racing, the sport’s marketing arm which previously operated under the Racing For Change banner, confirmed that this year’s title race will begin at Newmarket’s Guineas meeting in early May – and be settled on Ascot’s Champions Day on October 17.
This differs from previous years when the race began at Doncaster’s Lincoln meeting in late March, Flat racing’s traditional curtain-raiser, and ended at Town Moor in early November.
Three contests in the past decade have been decided on the final day of the season, including the back-to-back triumphs recorded by Paul Hanagan when he was No 1 jockey to Malton trainer Richard Fahey before becoming retained rider to Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum.
Yet the denouement to the 2014 Flat campaign lacked the excitement of previous years after the aforementioned Moore’s riding commitments overseas meant that Richard Hughes could win a third successive title unchallenged. Hughes, who intends to retire at the end of this season, believes that the changes represent progress.
“Anything which helps to raise the profile of the sport and is of benefit for the weighing room is something that I’m all for,” he said.
He was backed by three-times former champion Frankie Dettori, who said: “I believe it will heighten the intensity of the competition, which is exactly what we should be doing in the sport.
“Under the old system there wasn’t as much fanfare around the championships but it’s what you see in Formula 1 and other sports and fans really get involved.”
However, the 2015 Flat trainers’ championship will not be part of the redefined format and will be awarded to the trainer who has won the most prize-money on both turf and all-weather tracks from November 9, 2014, to November 7, 2015.
“You can now brace yourself for the departure of our top jockeys, to sunnier, more lucrative, climes in early October,” warned an incredulous Johnston. “They may, or may not, return for the Craven meeting (the Guineas trials in mid-April at Newmarket) but you can take it that the majority will only ride in Britain for six months of the year. Another great idea from the folks at ‘Racing For No Change’.
“The importance of attracting top jockeys to our top meetings is rarely disputed although there are now many examples of fixture clashes at weekends which demonstrate that some of the food and beverage men and women who run racecourses have lost sight of this.
“Clashes with top international meetings like the Dubai World Cup cannot always be avoided and we just have to face the fact that, when it happens, Britain, with its pitiful prize-money, is always going to be less attractive to those who have the opportunity to ride at a more lucrative meeting. But, surely, it is foolish – to say the least – to encourage them to do so.
“I have no doubt that a 12-month championship would result in our top jockeys having a much greater presence on our racecourses throughout the year and would ultimately be beneficial to British racing. I am sure they would still go to the Dubai World Cup, the Breeders Cup, the Arc and for a couple of weeks lying on a beach somewhere, and rightly so.”
Johnston was backed by fellow trainer Ed Dunlop, who trained the legendary filly Ouija Board and who says the changes contrast with National Hunt racing where the championship – won by the incomparable AP McCoy for 20 successive seasons – is determined by the most successful rider over a 12-month period that begins and ends each April.
He said: “This does seem a little odd, and appears to favour jockeys who are riding abroad at both the beginning and end of our domestic season.
“What makes AP McCoy’s achievements over jumps so special is that he has proven to be the most consistent jockey for so long – not just at the premier fixtures, but day-in, day-out at the less glamorous meetings.
“It seems only right that the pilot willing to travel the length and breadth of the country to secure the crown is the one rewarded for their endeavour, and this new initiative will remove us significantly from that concept on the Flat. I am yet to be convinced that this is a good move.”