Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS
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Could we see 2020’s most famous horse race, the Durban July, decided for the first time by a computer?

This is the intriguing question after the success last weekend of the 2020 Virtual Grand National in the UK — a computer-generated version of the historic steeplechase.

The Virtual Grand National, shown on ITV, pulled in an audience of 4.8-million viewers. This can be compared with the 1.95-million who watched the 2019 Derby won by Anthony van Dyk and the 940,000 who tuned in for Enable’s bid for a third Arc De Triomphe win in Paris in October.

Bookmakers and the Tote pledged to donate any profits to the National Health Service (NHS) Charities Together Covid-19 appeal, the British umbrella organisation that represents more than 140 NHS charities.

One of the questions surrounding a virtual Durban July is whether this would pose a problem for commentators. Nico Kritsiotis, one of the country’s leading race callers, says it will not.

“From a commentator’s perspective, we are used to calling ‘off the screen’ for venues such as Flamingo Park, Fairview and Champ De Mars [Mauritius] and so all established SA callers would have no problem stepping up to the plate to do the deed,” Kritsiotis said.

“Judged by the success of the virtual National run last weekend, this would be one helluva novelty for a SA betting opportunity,” said Kritsiotis.

“I would welcome a virtual July, as I think most South Africans would, also due to it being the country’s most talked-about race year after year.

“The race is the one occasion on the calendar where horses from all corners of the country can race against each other in front of a capacity crowd. I also believe a July office sweepstake would go down a treat.”

Stewart Machin, the racecaller of the virtual National, said after the event: “It is so realistic that — once you start commentating, never for a fleeting moment does it go through your mind that it isn’t real.”

Of course, much depends on the length of the lockdown due to the coronavirus, but the Open Championship — scheduled for Sandwich, Kent, in mid-July — has already been cancelled.

The Virtual Grand National was pre-recorded by Carm Productions, which vowed to ensure the result would not leak to the betting market.

A spokesperson for the company said: “As the show is pre-recorded, we insist on strict levels of confidentiality from everyone involved in the production process.”

The mind boggles at how much could be made if someone knew the result with 18-1 shot Potters Corner beating home Walk In The Mill (16-1), Any Second Now (10-1) and the 5-1 favourite Tiger Roll.

Ladbrokes spokesperson Nicola McGeady said: “It is only fitting that all bookmaker profits on the race should go to the NHS for the heroic work they are doing during these difficult times.”

Immediately cancelled

• Just nine days ago, a Business Day story was headlined “From ground zero to Hong Kong star” as 28-year-old Cape Town-born jockey Grant van Niekerk was enjoying considerable success in the city.

The news that Van Niekerk’s six-month licence has been immediately cancelled by the Hong Kong Jockey Club will come as a shock to SA racing fans.

A statement from the Hong Kong Jockey Club reads: “It is a conduct-related matter that does not pertain to any race-riding or integrity-related matter.”

The South China Morning Post reported that Van Niekerk’s sacking was related to a domestic dispute, but the police were not involved and the jockey remains in Hong Kong.

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