Celebrities and racing: the sad lessons of a monumental weekend

Michael Owen with Brown Panther after winning last year's Irish Leger. Photo: Racingfotos

You don’t get many more dramatic, more exciting, more column-inch-consuming weekends in horseracing than the one just gone.

Everywhere you looked there were stories each of which would have engulfed the racing pages on any normal day. The big problem facing sports editors, in Britain and Ireland at least, was which one to major on for the Monday morning editions.

Surely it had to be Treve’s stunning victory in the G1 Qatar Prix Vermeille at Longchamp on Sunday. The dual Arc winner was so impressive blitzing a field of top-level fillies that you’ll get no better than even money now on her making it an unprecedented three in a row in the world’s biggest turf race on October 4.

Indeed Harry Herbert, representing owners Al Shaqab Racing, a man who has witnessed most of the great performances around the world over the past three or four decades, was moved to tell the Press Association (PA): "Her performance was nothing short of remarkable really, and I have rarely seen anything like it. Even some of the hardened professionals I spoke to at Longchamp were saying it was one of the best performances they'd ever seen.”

But then maybe the fallout after Saturday’s G1 QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown was even more newsworthy than Treve. The race, richer and more prestigious than the Vermeille and centrepiece of Irish Champions Weekend, will surely be close to the top of any list of famous controversial finishes in years to come.

The John Gosden-trained Epsom Derby winner Golden Horn, still officially the top-rated horse in the world, swerved right inside the final two furlongs and badly bumped Free Eagle just as the Dermot Weld-trained 4-year-old was mounting a serious challenge. The knock pretty well put paid to Free Eagle’s chance, and Golden Horn soldiered on bravely to pass the post first.

After much deliberation, the stewards allowed the Derby winner to keep the race, although their decision may have been different had Free Eagle finished second instead of third - he was overtaken close home by the Ballydoyle filly Found.

Fiona Craig, advisor to Free Eagle’s owners, Moyglare Stud, told the PA later: "Who knows whether the result would have been different? What we do know is our horse wouldn't have gone down without a fight. He was trained for the race, he was coming with his challenge and was knocked sideways. It's just so disappointing he didn't get the chance to fight out the finish."

Controversy indeed. But maybe not as great as the one that had exploded on the other side of the Irish Sea just two hours earlier, when the result of Britain’s oldest classic, the G1 Ladbrokes St Leger, was overturned in the stewards’ room after the filly Simple Verse twice bumped Bondi Beach in the closing stages before prevailing by a head.

That meant heartbreak for trainer Ralph Beckett, jockey Andrea Atzeni and owners Qatar Racing (their appeal against the verdict will be heard next week) and more G1 glory for Aidan O’Brien, who sent out Bondi Beach.

More glory for O’Brien? Hold on a second, wasn’t the biggest story of the weekend actually that the Ballydoyle maestro won FOUR Group 1s? As well as the British St Leger at Doncaster on Saturday, he sent out the Galileo colt Order Of St George to take the Palmerstown House Estate Irish St Leger (by 11 lengths), the War Front colt Air Force Blue for an easy win in the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes, and the Galileo filly Minding to land the Moyglare Stud Stakes (spearheading a Ballydoyle/Galileo 1-2-3).

So which of these mega stories did the sports editors go for? Which one did they consider the most important?

Answer: none of the above.

It wasn’t even close, to be honest. Dwarfing the lot was the death of one of the 13-2 joint fourth favourites for the Irish St Leger.

Obviously racefans everywhere would have been mortified when Brown Panther had to be destroyed after suffering a broken hind leg during the race. Here was a widely popular 7-year-old, who had won the Irish Leger last year, as well as the big staying race on the Dubai World Cup card this March, and a Group 2, two Group 3s and a big handicap at Royal Ascot back in 2011 during a memorable 28-race career.

But that wasn’t the reason his passing was far and away the biggest talking point of the weekend - the only horseracing talking point as far as non-racing sports fans were concerned.

If Brown Panther had been owned by you or me, reports of his death would have been mere footnotes at the bottom of the racing pages.

But the horse was bred and half-owned by Michael Owen.

That’s the same Michael Owen who scored 40 goals in 89 appearances for the England national football (soccer) team, the same Michael Owen who played for Liverpool, Manchester United and Real Madrid in a renowned and prolific career at the highest level, the same Michael Owen whose passion now is for horses.

Which just goes to show not only where horse racing sits in the public consciousness but also one of the main realities it must embrace if it is ever to regain much of its diminishing popularity.

Okay, so racing is a vast, multi-billion-dollar industry supporting hundreds of thousands of people around the world. But, to virtually everyone else - and certainly to the sports editors, it is little more than a niche activity, with little relevance to the general population. (This refers to Europe and the U.S., rather than Japan, Hong Kong and Australia, where it has much more resonance with the public.)

The sport, of course, is accorded reams of publicity every day, but the ordinary sports fan takes zero interest - unless it involves people like Owen, or Wes Welker, the American Football wide receiver who is joint owner of Undrafted, winner of the G1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot in June.

The sad end of poor old Brown Panther is a stark reminder of the sheer power of celebrity - and how there’s nothing quite like it if you want to get your product noticed.

But you won’t get anyone - from show business to big business, from sheikhs to shopkeepers - succumbing to the lure of racehorse ownership unless they’re going to get one hell of a kick out of it. So let’s make sure being an owner is fun, fair and fascinating - and let’s keep it that way for all of them.

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