TOP trainer William Haggas says National Hunt racing in Yorkshire and the North faces a bleak future unless more is done to safeguard the sport.
His call-to-arms formed the centrepiece of a well-received speech at the 244th Gimcrack Dinner at York Racecourse last night.
As well as celebrating the great racehorse Gimcrack who won 27 of his 30 races during an 11-year career in the 1760s, this annual ritual sees racing’s great and good come together to discuss the sport’s future.
Even though Skipton-born Haggas is one of Britain’s foremost Flat trainers, and has enjoyed great success with horses like this summer’s Eclipse hero Mukhadram, he is no stranger to jump racing.
His mother Christine Feather, who passed away earlier this year, owned the 1982 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Silver Buck whose career was masterminded by Michael Dickinson.
This was an era when jump trainers from the North monopolised National Hunt racing – Silver Buck was also good enough to win two King George VI Chases – before becoming marginalised by the emergence of powerful new yards in Lambourn and the South West which regularly spend six figure sums on moderate horses.
However, no horse from the North has won the Gold Cup since Peter Beaumont’s Jodami prevailed in 1983. The best result in recent times came when Ferdy Murphy’s Truckers Tavern was a remote second to Best Mate in 2003.
Haggas cited the proposed introduction of all-weather racing at Newcastle, and four Flat fixtures at Wetherby next year, as worrying developments.
“The frightening decline in National Hunt racing in the North spells trouble,” said Haggas whose father-in-law is the legendary Lester Piggott.
“With the threat of Newcastle, one of the very best and fairest turf tracks in England, turning into all weather and Wetherby threatening to graduate to flat racing, albeit slowly, there is a real fear that jumping could suffer beyond repair.
“With all due respect to Lucinda Russell, Brian Ellison, Sue Smith and Nicky Richards and a few others, the power is in the South via Messrs Nicholls, Henderson, Hobbs, King – even Donald McCain is hardly North.
“When I was young, the Winter/Walwyn teams struggled to contend with WA Stephenson, the Dickinsons and Gordon Richards.
“What has gone wrong? In the hope that these things are cyclical, let’s hope that former glories return to jump racing in the North. But we must be conscious to protect, and then restore, it as best we can.”
Disillusionment with the state of the sport was one of the factors cited by 2013 Grand National-winning jockey Ryan Mania when he retired abruptly last month at the age of 25 just 18 months after partnering Sue and Harvey Smith’s Auroras Encore to Aintree glory.
Though Mania had also struggled to keep his weight in check, he believed National Hunt racing was the poor relation because of low prize money, a lack of top races and flaws in the handicapping system made it difficult for horses from the North to compete at the big meetings.
In a wide-ranging speech, Haggas did pay tribute to York for the unrivalled quality of its racing, a record £6m in prize money in 2014 and the upgrading of facilities for horses, trainers and spectators.
“A new weighing room, an infinitely more preferable pre-parade ring, a new restaurant overlooking the paddock all complementing the best ‘owner and trainer facility in the country,” he eulogised.
“Maybe now this place is not the Ascot of the North but Ascot is the York of the South! In this business if you stand still, you go backwards so congratulations to York and keep up the good work.”
Haggas also contrasted the state of National Hunt racing with the riches being poured into the sport by a new generation of owners from the Middle East who, he says, will become increasingly influential.
“2014 saw the most extraordinary yearling sales in my lifetime. Most sales companies enjoyed record turnover/averages in 2013 but these were all smashed this year,” he noted.
“When you think that well over 50 per cent of yearlings born are in private hands and never see a sales ring, what is going on is frightening... we must continue to encourage investment in our industry here.
“The French have the perfect business model of which we are all very envious. But they do not have what we have – the passion, integrity, diversity, pride, variety and attendances, which in itself creates atmosphere. It is this whole package which attracts investment. Book One at Newmarket saw four billionaire operations vying for the same bloodstock – these people have passion to burn and we should be grateful that they want to be here.”