It was evidently not enough for some that Sir Michael Stoute, surely one of the greatest trainers to have ever saddled a horse, had just demonstrated his acute equine sense once again by restoring Workforce to his brilliant best to claim a first triumph in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamps on Sunday. No, the grumble was that he was not prepared to talk about it.
Stoute delayed his entrance to the post-Arc press conference by a good half-hour, so that by the time he arrived, it was almost time to leave to go and saddle his next runner in the Prix de l’Opera. His reluctant and uncommunicative attitude left the Guardian’s racing correspondent, Greg Wood, a little sore on behalf of his readers, complaining that when it comes to communicating with the wider racing public, Stoute ‘could not care less.’
It was a depressing reminder, said Wood, that the attitude that the punters do not matter ‘will always have the upper hand until Stoute and his generation give way for younger, less-blinkered trainers.’ And even if horseracing forced trainers to appear at post-race press conferences, as is mandatory in all American sports, and most of what you might call commercially aware sports on this of the divide, Wood surmised that it would make little difference to Stoute who would either ignore it, a la Sir Alex Ferguson, or simply dead-bat most enquiries away resulting in a futile exercise for all concerned.
Stoute is notoriously reticent when it comes to talking up either his horses or his own achievements, or even reflecting upon them. Maybe he thinks his primary responsibility is to the owners who pay upwards of twenty-five thousand pounds a year per horse to benefit from his wisdom, experience and horse sense. My guess is that Prince Khalid Abdullah, the owner, was ecstatic that his trainer was more concerned with his meticulous preparations than wallowing in the glory of another Classic won. Those who carried a betting slip that returned six times their investment might have been pleased that Stoute’s genius had rewarded them again, too.
Not that Stoute is deaf to the punters’ needs as highlighted by his pronouncements as to Workforce’s Arc ambitions. Stoute said all along that his Derby winner would run only if he, the trainer, was happy with him. There was no attempt either to put off those wanting an ante-post bet, nor was there any attempt to negligently talk up his horse’s chances. Those who purchased an ante-post ticket did so in the knowledge that, more so than usual, there was risk attached. Three days before the race, Stoute confirmed he would run.
Now, it seems to me that Stoute got things spot on in the build up to the race, both publicly, knowing that he has a responsibility to those whose enjoyment of racing comes in the form of a betting slip (the overwhelming majority), and privately, to those who pay him to get the best out of a horse. He might have thought that once Workforce had made it to the starting gate in pristine condition, his job was done. He would have been right.
What Wood was articulating when Stoute refused to garnish his achievement in the post-race press conference was not any dismay on behalf of the racing fan but the prevailing orthodoxy in sport’s journalism that a performance/match/event is not complete until the protagonists have had their say. That, somehow, the doing is not enough, even though there has been ample evidence over the past few days that the glory is all in the performance rather than much of the nonsense that goes with it.
It was the doing that rescued the Ryder Cup from an embarrassingly earnest build-up, during which the players and their WAGS strutted around as if models on a Milanese catwalk, Corey Pavin, the American captain, saw fit to invite the military to advise his players how better to cope in ‘hostile territory’, and any number of blazered rituals on the podium reminded us that we were about to witness something beyond mere sport.
It was enough to induce no small sense of schadenfreude when the deluge came. But just when such cynicism threatened to engulf those of us not carried away on a tide of schmaltz, there was the action to remind us again what really matters. Nobody who watched the denouement, I imagine, needed verbal affirmation afterwards that Graeme McDowell possesses an iron nerve to go with his talent, that, in Rickie Fowler, America has found a young player of breathtaking competitiveness or that, sad to report, it was all too much for another young player, Hunter Mahan. No words afterwards could mask the truths revealed in the heat of competition.
Of course, we may yearn for those lost days when reporters could watch a fight and then make their way to Muhammad Ali’s compound the next morning and sit and chew the cud with the champ, short-hand working furiously as the great man’s bon mots spewed forth. Organised, commercially-driven sport does not happen that way now; with the needs of sponsors and the image of sport paramount, athletes are coached and advised to say little of interest.
This obsession with what athletes say rather than do has reached its apotheosis on the modern cricket tour, where a combination of the demands of daily journalism, the need for what journalists call the ‘nannies’ (as in ‘goats’- quotes) and the governing body’s desire to control the news and those who write it, results in a meaningless daily press conference, dreaded by all involved. On all but rare days, the player has nothing to say, the journalist nothing to ask and so the ritual goes on, day after day.
On the day that Wood bemoaned Stoute’s reticence, Racing for Change sent four young jump jockeys for- god help them- ‘media training’. Racing for Change is an organisation committed to dragging the sport into the 21st century through utilising-god help us- ‘senior level marketing expertise to launch and develop a tightly co-ordinated PR and marketing strategy that creates mass market appeal, moving racing beyond its narrow confines to a broader sports and consumer media.’
Sport should be careful what it wishes for. Some may prefer to listen to four young jockeys who have been media trained to within an inch of their lives and who think it is their job to promote the sport rather than fulfil their talent. Me? I prefer the craftsmanship of an old master who knows it is enough to achieve and doesn’t feel the need to brag about it afterwards.