Flat racing – often, but not always, capitalised – is the code, or discipline, of horse racing that involves no obstacles. Flat racing is sometimes referred to as racing ‘on the level’, but some racecourses on which Flat racing is staged are anything but level, with pronounced undulations or severe uphill or downhill gradients. In Britain, Flat races are staged over distances between 5 furlongs and 2 miles 5 furlongs and 143 yards and take place, on turf, during a season that traditionally lasts from late March or early April to early November. However, Flat racing also takes place on the all-weather tracks at Chelmsford, Kempton, Lingfield, Newcastle, Southwell and Wolverhampton all year round.
In horse racing parlance, a maiden is a horse – regardless of its age or sex – that has yet to win a race in its selected discipline. Thus, it follows, naturally, that a maiden race is a race in which none of the participants have won a race in their selected discipline. Maiden races are run on the Flat and under National Hunt Rules, so the situation is complicated, somewhat, by horses that progress from one discipline to another, as many do, throughout their careers. A horse that has won a Flat race, or a National Hunt Flat race, but not a hurdle race, is still eligible for a ‘maiden hurdle’ by virtue of never having won a race over obstacles, and so on.
In horse racing, the term ‘going’ is used to describe the condition of the ground at a racecourse, in terms of its moisture content. The going is measured by the Clerk of the Course on a raceday morning and communicated to the Racecourse Association which, in turn, distributes the information to the Press Association. Traditionally, the going was described by one of seven broad, subjective categories, ranging from ‘hard’ to ‘heavy’.
However, for National Hunt racing, going previously described, officially, as ‘hard’ has been outlawed as unraceable in Britain and, for Flat racing, such going is rarely, if ever, experienced anywhere other than Bath; set on the Lansdown Plateau, 780 feet above sea level, Bath is the highest racecourse in the country that stages Flat racing and has no watering system.
Furthermore, for racing under both codes, at least on turf racecourses, the traditional going description is accompanied by an objective, empirical figure, known as a ‘GoingStick reading’. Described as a cross between a spade and a shooting stick, the GoingStick is a device with a single metal probe that is pushed into the ground and measures penetration and shear, which are translated into a figure representing the moisture content of the soil. The GoingStick produces readings between 0 and 15, but a reading below 5 (‘heavy’) or above 10 (‘firm’) usually means that the ground is unraceable.
Of course, some racecourses in Britain also stage Flat racing on synthetic, or ‘all-weather’, surfaces, such as Fibresand, Polytrack and Tapeta. These surfaces, which consist of silica sand, polypropylene fibres and other components, can be rolled or harrowed to adjust their firmness, but the official going description still relies on the traditional, subjective approach. Indeed, all-weather racing has even few categories than turf racing, with the going ranging from ‘fast’, through ‘standard’, to ‘slow’.
Having won the Derby by 10 lengths – still the widest winning margin in the history of the race – in 1981, Shergar was, for a time, the most celebrated racehorse in the world. Following his last race, in the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster, later that year, he was retired to Ballymany Stud, in Co. Kildare, Ireland, where he was syndicated for £10 million.
However, less than two years later, on a murky night in February, 1983, Shergar was abducted by a gang of masked gunmen, believed to belong to the Irish Republic Army (IRA), and never seen again. Ransom negotiations – conducted, bizarrely, by British horse racing journalist Derek Thompson – followed, but ended abruptly with an anonymous, but coded, message that Shergar had died ‘in an accident’.
Exactly what happened to Shergar remains an abiding mystery. He may well have died, as suggested by more than one former IRA member, in a hail of machine gun bullets in a stable at a remote farm near the town of Ballinamore in Co. Leitrim – former ‘bandit country’ – near the border with Northern Ireland, after becoming distressed by his new surroundings. However, the IRA has never officially claimed responsibility for his disappearance, his kidnappers have never been officially identified and his remains have never been found.