Week In Focus column

Racing opinion: David Ord on moves to boost jumps racing and snare a star trainer

Our man on the Winter Million and a potentially fascinating racing transfer during the January window.

It was a week in which Robbie Dunne signalled, as was his right, the intention to appeal against the 18-month ban handed out for bullying and harassing weighing-room colleague Bryony Frost.

It remains to be seen when the hearing will be scheduled, but clearly racing faces another uneasy spell under the spotlight at a time when we’re looking to build momentum towards our major spring festivals.

Will Winter Million help with jump racing's big issue?

Part of that springboard, conceivably, is the Winter Million – launched this weekend at Lingfield.

Prize money across the three days, with two jumping cards and a flat fixture on Saturday, totalled over – you’ve guessed it - £1million, and the concept was warmly welcomed by those in the thick of the action.

Understandably so, good cash pots to race for are always a positive move but again this initiative, following hot on the heels of increased prize money for the Coral Silviniaco Conti Chase and Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton the Saturday before, merely underlined how sparse quality jumps horses are on this side of the Irish Sea.

Timeform Day

The £50,000 Cazoo Hurdle on Friday attracted four runners, official ratings ranging from 115 to 148. Sunday’s Fleur De Lys Chase drew Master Tommytucker away from the Silvinaico Conti, Bristol De Mai the Peter Marsh, and five others are set to race for over £100,000.

It’s evidence of why we can’t look to replicate the Grade One-laden Dublin Racing Festival in Britain right now, even if we could persuade our leading trainers and owners to be a little bolder when it comes to rolling the dice. There just aren’t the horses.

It was wonderful to see the epic clash in the SBK Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday but just consider what would have happened had Willie Mullins and Tony Bloom decided to keep Energumene at home for his mid-winter outing?

Shishkin at 1/4 to beat First Flow and Hitman? We’d have been bemoaning another lacklustre Saturday feature and engaging in that wonderful racing tradition of navel gazing.

It’s clear there are too many graded opportunities over here right now, too many potential penalty-kicks for our star names, so when we do get a big clash, we rightly savour it. But it ought to be the norm – not the glorious exception.

But if the Winter Million is to be a roaring success, if the increased money being thrown at big handicaps and major prizes across our top tracks are to trigger greater competition and engagement, then we really do need more.

More horses coming into jumps racing, more owners being attracted, more racegoers, more punters. More clashes like Shishkin versus Energumene.

And as we stand now when it comes to race programming and the fixture list it very much looks like a case of less means more.

Owen set for transfer sensation?

Elsewhere, when it was announced that Tom Dascombe was leaving his role as retained trainer at Manor House Stables, Hugo Palmer would have been a big price to be his replacement.

After all, the Classic-winning handler is firmly established in the heart of Newmarket, training out of Kremlin Cottage Stables which housed a pair of Derby winners for Luca Cumani.

According to the BHA website, he currently has 73 horses in training, including the Group One-winning two-year-old Ebro River.

In that colt's owners Al Shaqab, plus Highclere and Juddmonte among others, Palmer has – or has had – the support of some of the big hitters in the game. But the grapevine has been buzzing for a while that Michael Owen was about to complete a significant transfer coup in this January window.

But just as Sky Sports News were dusting down their Done Deal icon and preparing to announce it on the yellow banner, Palmer issued a statement on Twitter saying: "Discussions continue and are at an advanced stage but no decisions have yet been made."

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It’s a potentially fascinating move. For a trainer of this ilk to leave Flat racing’s headquarters for a new base in Cheshire would be a big one from both parties.

Much, of course, would depend on his ability to bring his existing horses – and their owners – with him. Perhaps he wants a break from training in Newmarket, the hustle-and-bustle that goes with it. A quieter, secluded spot to go about his business might be the appeal?

Maybe it’s a salaried position that's on offer here and if it is that would offer some security too at a time when countless trainers are down on numbers and looking for owners and horses to restore previous firepower.

Whatever the reasons, and however the whole thing plays out, it is a racing transfer story that got people talking this week. And you don’t get too many of those.

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