Worcester racecourse was subjected to some stinging criticism on Thursday after the embarrassment of a day’s racing blighted by non-runners. The racing surface proved to be drier and quicker than expected, leading to a total of 33 non‑runners, almost as many as the 41 horses who actually turned up, with two races being reduced to only two runners apiece.
“Really disappointing” and “shoddy” were words used by one racegoer, who added: “We should be betting on who will be left for the last race.”
There were also strong words from Peter Scudamore, an eight-times champion jockey who was born just up the road in Herefordshire and was returning to the track for the first time in years. “I don’t know the politics behind the running of the track but, in a modern society, I can’t see what the attraction is for someone to go there on a day like that,” Scudamore said. “I found it depressing.
“It’s like going to see a play and the theatre’s not ready and the actors don’t turn up. Maybe the public are quite happy to stand there and be kicked in the balls. I thought it was bloody quick ground. Maybe I’m just used to northern ground.”
Scudamore, who now lives near Perth with his partner, the trainer Lucinda Russell, added: “There’s no justification for that many non-runners. It almost becomes a joke. Everything’s a non‑runner, there’s no interest in being there. What was acceptable in my time and my father’s time is not acceptable now.”
Worcester’s going was described in the morning papers as “good”, became “good to firm in places” on Thursday morning and was “good to firm” all round after the first race. That prompted 23 going-related withdrawals after the racing had begun, a level of absenteeism that attracted the interest of the British Horseracing Authority, which will raise the matter with course officials.
Alan King sent three horses to the track but withdrew two after his first runner, who generally likes a sound surface, raced as though the ground was too dry even for her. “It’s very disappointing,” King said, “although that’s not the biggest problem I have with Worcester. The facilities for owners and trainers are just awful, the worst of any course I go to. In this day and age, it’s not acceptable and something needs to be done.”
“Very disappointing” was also the response from Nigel Twiston-Davies, another trainer who found himself returning home with unraced animals. “I thought it was firm,” he said of the ground and pointed out that the time for the first race was eight seconds faster than the standard for the track, suggesting lightning-quick ground.
But there was some support for Worcester, including from the champion jockey Richard Johnson, who rode two winners. “They’ve done a great job, the track’s in good condition. It’s just the weather the last few days; the track’s dried out and it’s fast.” Johnson reckoned the problem was largely to do with trainers being understandably reluctant to risk “winter horses” with six months of action ahead of them. Had the same conditions arisen two months ago, there would have been plenty of summer-ground horses to take part, he suggested.
Jonjo O’Neill, who trained a winner on the card, described the ground as “lovely”. “There’s plenty of moisture underneath it, really. I don’t feel there’s any problem with it,” he said.
Libby O’Flaherty, Worcester’s clerk of the course, blamed forecast rain that failed to appear on Wednesday. “We were due between 3mm and 10mm yesterday and didn’t get anything. It was supposed to come at 1pm, then they said it would come at 3pm. This morning, we were forecast a normal dry day but it wasn’t, it was a glorious day and breezy and the ground dried out. I can’t change the weather. If I’d watered and we’d got 5mm to 10mm, we’d have ended up with good to soft ground. They all entered expecting good ground.”
Responding to King’s point, a spokesperson for ARC, owner of Worcester, said development options were being considered.
For Dan Skelton, also a winning trainer on the card, the day showed the limitations of the sport’s recent initiative to curb the number of non-runners. “Everyone wants runners,” he said, “but if you run one on the wrong ground [and injure them], they miss a year or more. We have to be allowed to make those decisions.
“A going description is only an opinion. Non-runners leave everyone pissed off. The racecourse looks silly, because they’ve called the ground wrong, the jockeys have gone there and not ridden a horse, trainers and owners can’t see their horses run. It’s not just an irritation for the media and for punters.”