Mike Cattermole: Pouce vers le haut!
Mike Cattermole discusses France Galop's decision to introduce a weight allowance for female riders in this week's column.
Josephine Gordon: Would make hay with a 4lb claim
Female jockeys – bonne chance!
There was always going to be a mixed response to the news that France Galop is to introduce a weight allowance of 2kg (about 4 1/2lb) for female jockeys from the start of next month.
Some, like champion apprentice Josephine Gordon, found it "a bit offensive" and others in her position who would consider themselves the equal of their male counterparts – think Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh in Ireland – will no doubt feel the same. Or even consider it insulting.
However, looking at the bigger picture, it certainly gives owners and trainers a solid incentive to use female riders and give them more of a chance to show what they can do. Some have ridiculed this initiative but I consider it as a brave idea, even if male jockeys will not like it. It will be interesting to see how it works in practice. It's got to be worth a shot.
Why? Because the top racing countries in Europe have arguably not embraced female riders as much as either the US or Australia/New Zealand. Hayley Turner had a very successful career but we just don't have the equivalents here of Julie Krone (3,704 career wins) or Rosie Napravnik (closing in on 2,000).
I have written in this column before about how Lizzie Kelly, the leading lady jumps rider in the country, has been struggling to get rides even after becoming the first woman to win a Grade One over a year ago. And she still claims! What isn't there to like? This has to go down to attitude and prejudice and clearly the French are trying to do something about it.
It is not as if a weight allowance for the fairer sex is a new idea – the fillies and mares have been getting weight from their male equine rivals for decades now. That is because it is widely accepted that they don't run as fast as the male horses – and, with the odd exception, they don't.
However, are they admitting in France that female riders are not as good as their male counterparts? I doubt that. This is simply an attempt to give them a greater opportunity, which is being denied them right now.
Let's face it, horse racing is in a minority as a sport that offers women the same platform to compete on as the men; equestrian sports are another. It is the exception rather than the rule and it is something to be proud of.
Women don't play soccer or rugby with men – that would be a physical mismatch – and it isn't seen in golf where women tend to play on shorter courses anyway or, at amateur level, from a forward tee.
In tennis, there are mixed doubles of course, but nobody would deny that the best women players would struggle in a singles match against a leading male player. Also, the girls never get asked to play the best of five sets at any tournament.
I recall Jimmy Connors facing Martina Navratilova in a "Battle of Champions" in 1992 but he was only allowed one serve and she also had the doubles court to aim at. Both were a few years past their prime but still fit and Connors won comfortably in straight sets.
On a horse though, things are different. Look at how Charlotte DuJardin has dominated in dressage – outstanding.
The likes of Hayley, Julie, Rosie, Nina, Katie and Josephine are rightly regarded as the equal of men but that is just a handful of female riders in a sport dominated by the boys. It is an uneven balance.
That all said, I do wonder how the French system will work. As far as I know, there has been no talk of any exceptions made for experience or number of winners ridden. Imagine if there is a talented girl apprentice coming through, then her weight allowance could run to over 10lb – a huge reduction.
So, pouce vers le haut (or thumbs up) to France Galop for this experiment, which might just make a difference in the longer term.
Meanwhile, given the excellent prize money out there right now, the likes of Gordon, and especially her more established colleagues, would be mad not to embrace this new opportunity and should be looking for an agent out there – vite!
Ed McMahon, an innocent victim of 'progress'
Ed McMahon had his last runner, Mysterious Look, at Southwell a couple of weeks ago. She finished third but it would have made a nicer story had she won as her dam, Look Here's Carol, had been his first winner after taking over the licence from his father, Bryan, in 2005.
There have been some trainers forced to give up recently because their businesses weren't profitable. This was not the case with Ed who has been the subject of a compulsory purchase order as the new multi-billion pound HS2 train is going to cut right through the middle of his land near Lichfield.
All so that passengers can get to Birmingham or London a few minutes faster.
He could have stayed and continued on a considerably reduced land area but it would not have been practical or peaceful, with the noise, heavy plant, traffic disruption and pollution stretching ahead for at least the next decade as the new line was being carved into the land.
Or he could go and train somewhere else, at least 50 miles away though – under the (peculiar) conditions of the purchase order. He doesn't want to do that with his friends, wife's family and his own parents still nearby. You can't blame him.
McMahon was proud to take over from his father, the son of a Liverpool docker who had built the business from scratch. Ed had moved things on, improving the facilities and upping the quality of horse trained there. Astrophysical Jet and Temple Meads were very good sprinters.
That this hard work was all effectively for nothing must be heart-breaking and hugely stressful. Imagine waking up every day since the plans were announced with the knowledge that there was sod all he could do about it.
No wonder he was emotional about it when I spoke to him at Southwell to offer my sympathies and best wishes. Compensation? You'd hope so. But he says he has been forced into chasing the authorities to pay up. It's a disgraceful scenario.
"It is a horrible position to be in" he told me. "The people we have had to deal with have been ruthless. You have to be seen to be making an effort to find a new home and they sent me a glossy brochure of a nice property the other day only they then realised that the train was going through there too."
Construction on the first phase of HS2 is due to start later this year. The latest completion date is given as 2033. It's an all too real nightmare for Ed McMahon.
Will Willie run anything in the Champion?
This certainly puts the loss of a few horses such as Faugheen and Min from the Cheltenham Festival into perspective.
It seems that most of the racing world was expecting to hear that Faugheen wouldn't make it to the Champion Hurdle – for the second year running. Talk about getting him back at all this season seems a bit optimistic, given that his latest setback is a stress fracture. Sadly, he could be finished.
So what will Willie Mullins do now? Divert Vroum Vroum Mag or Yorkhill to the Champion Hurdle? Vroum Vroum Mag was way below her best at Doncaster last time. Is she okay? Yorkhill, full of talent, still pulls a bit and jumps left but he would be a fascinating contender. Some light on the stable's plans and considerations would be interesting.
Meanwhile, Nicky Henderson's team is taking sharper shape. Champion Hurdle new boy Buveur D'Air exuded class at Sandown – but so he should have done. There was little between him and Petit Mouchoir as novices and it will be down to who has made the most improvement.
Meanwhile, Henderson's Top Notch has become a personal favourite. He is not big but is very athletic and a proper pro. The JLT is his correct target and you know he will try his best.
Same old Arsenal
Wish I could say the same about Arsenal.
The depressing thing about Arsenal's defeat at Chelsea on Saturday was that it was all so predictable. It was never going to be anything but a comprehensive win for the league leaders.
All of Arsenal's familiar failings were going to be exposed – the lack of mental and physical toughness, exemplified by Mesut Ozil going missing again on the big stage, alongside the sad lack of flexibility when it comes to tactics.
The pattern of the game was easy to work out – lots of Arsenal possession with the Blues hitting them on the counter. So why is it that there was no Plan B? You'd think that all of those experienced football brains who work for Arsenal would have known all this and yet their team was not set up any differently than usual.
All of these familiar failings lie with Arsene Wenger who is in big danger, at this rate, of unravelling his impressive legacy. Many have been calling for his departure for years and I think that any true Gunner will now accept that changes have to be made.
The squad Wenger has put together is rich in talent but something isn't right.
A good friend of mine, a Gooner of several decades, believes that Wenger has long lost his magic in getting the best out of his players and points to the failure of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to move to the next level. More tellingly, he argues, Aaron Ramsey has not performed for Arsenal for a while now but turned in some top displays for Chris Coleman's Wales in the Euros.
It is also a blunder of epic proportions that they didn't make provision to recall Jack Wilshere when the midfield is as stretched as it is right now. And again, that decision goes back to the manager.
I have long admired Wenger's Arsenal but the club has been stalling now for several seasons and I do hope, being the highly intelligent man that he is, that he does not sign that two-year contract extension.
If he does, nothing will change, except his standing. I have a feeling, though, that there is as much chance of him walking away as there is of David Beckham getting his craved knighthood.