Robert Smerdon has forgotten more about jumps racing than most of his rival trainers know.
Several top-liners have passed through Smerdon’s hands, including Zabenz (which subsequently campaigned successfully in the US and England) and champion Black And Bent, with which he has established a new Australian record of 10 consecutive wins over jumps.
Smerdon saddles Black And Bent and highly regarded stablemate Brungle Cry in the $100,000 Brendan Drechsler Hurdle at Bendigo on Sunday and the Caulfield trainer, who did so much to keep jumps racing viable during its recent dark days, says Australian steeplechasing and hurdling have never looked to have more potential than now.
For so long it was difficult to persuade owners to jump horses, such was their concern over the loud campaign of the anti-jumps protesters and the opposition of the Labor government. But now, says Smerdon, ”it’s not quite, but it’s bordering on, trendy to have a jumper,” such has been the scale of the rehabilitation of the sport. Much of that, he says, is due to the support of Premier and Racing Minister Denis Napthine, who has always backed the jumping fraternity even in its darkest days.
”It’s like a lot of things in racing, you make a decision, and it usually takes two or three years for it to work through,” he said. ”The decisions made a couple of years ago to improve the sport and make it safer have started to bear fruit. I think it’s in the best position it’s been in for a long time, not just in its current position but going forward.”
All racing carries risk, and with jumpers the risk is obviously higher. There will inevitably be fatalities, and the euthanising of Reckless Rat at Warrnambool last week brought the number of fatalities this season so far to two.
But proponents argue the improved safety measures, the insistence on tougher schooling provisions, the importation of highly skilled Irish riders and the better class of horse now going jumping – different to the old days when old and battered stayers too slow to run on the flat were put over obstacles – are all starting to have an impact. While a 100 per cent safety record can never be assured, as much as possible is being done to remove risk.
”If you look at when Black And Bent began jumping as a late three-year-old [in the autumn and winter of 2010] we extended his season because I was worried there might not really be any future for him,” Smerdon said. ”But the support from the current government was the turning point, and the checks and balances Racing Victoria put in place have also been effective, constantly reviewing the horses, their races, their performances and the riders.
”There were a stack of horses at the Werribee trials a couple of weeks ago and that’s when I felt that things were really starting to change and it could be taking off again.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.