October 30 2009
On November 6 and 7, the big players in the bloodstock world will be at Santa Anita racecourse in southern California watching the stars of international flat racing battle it out at the multimillion-dollar Breeders Cup. The following weekend, British and Irish devotees will be enjoying the different but equally stirring spectacle of top-class steeplechasing at Cheltenham. There is no finer racetrack in the land than Prestbury Park, especially on a crisp November day, and Friday to Sunday’s Open meeting is the second biggest event in the Cheltenham calendar. It offers the same potent mixture of history, passion and atmosphere as the Festival in March. But while the November party is every bit as sociable as “the big one”, it has its own distinctive character and the Friday programme is Countryside Day, promising displays of foxhounds, terriers and falcons along with trade stands for early Christmas shopping.
The highlight of the weekend is Saturday’s Paddy Power Gold Cup, the £150,000 handicap chase that is the first top-drawer race of the National Hunt season. The 2.5-mile contest dates back to 1960, and was originally known as the Mackeson Gold Cup in the days when the treacly dark stout featured in a popular advert voiced by the late actor Bernard Miles. “Mackeson,” he would intone, “looks good, tastes good and, by golly, it does you good.” The sponsorship certainly did racing good and many celebrated horses collected the prize over the next 30 years, including the dual winners Fortria, Half Free and Gay Trip, who also won the 1970 Grand National.
But by 1995, sales were declining and Whitbread, brewer of Mackeson, switched its sponsorship. The race carried on under different names but it wasn’t until 2003, when Paddy Power got involved, that it really took off again. The Irish bookmaking firm, renowned for its humour, chutzpah and audacious advertising, has proved the ideal partner for Cheltenham and sponsors the feature race on each day of the Open weekend.
The Paddy Power brand itself has a relatively short history, having been founded back in 1988 by Stewart Kenny, who set up the company to offer Irish punters a distinct alternative to hostile English competitors. Power’s snappy, customer-oriented approach – which combines racing, football and politics with colourful markets such as ecclesiastical wagering – proved a galloping success. The firm has exported its cashback specials, early payouts and generous each-way terms to Britain, where it currently has a portfolio of 86 shops to go with its 196 back in Ireland. And since this April, Paddy Power has had a presence in the Australian market too, agreeing on an estimated €32.8m for a 51 per cent stake in Sportsbet, one of the biggest telephone and online operators down under.
The Aussies are every bit as obsessed with betting in general and racing in particular as their Irish counterparts – not for nothing is Ricky Ponting, captain of the Australian cricket team, known as “Punter” – and there is no more famous bookmaker in Melbourne than Mark Read, who used to boast that he’d lay a bet to anyone to win 1m Australian dollars. In 1996 Read’s business, International All Sports, became the first Australian bookmaking concern to be listed on the Melbourne stock exchange. This summer it was bought by Sportsbet, which already owned 19.98 per cent – thanks, in part, to a €9.1m investment by Paddy Power.
Australia’s biggest race of the year, the Melbourne Cup, took place last Tuesday and some of the European racegoers who travelled out to Flemington will have continued on to Santa Anita tonight. Some may well be at Cheltenham next Saturday, too, where punters should keep an eye on the runners from the local stable of Nigel Twiston-Davies, whose Naunton yard invariably hits form in October and November. The Californian action will take place without the European champion Sea The Stars, who has been retired to stud. In his absence the $5m Breeders Cup Classic may fall to his old rival and fellow Irishman Rip Van Winkle at 9-4 with Stan James.