Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

A Third Way

Mon 18th Nov 2019, 09:17

Faugheen made a successful chasing debut at Punchestown
©© Photo Healy Racing
Here's an early New Year's Resolution that racing around the world might consider for 2020 when it comes to interference rules. Most major jurisdictions currently operate what are termed Category One rules. The exception is North America which uses Category Two regulations. Both sets are flawed. One produces an unfair result like this year's Kentucky Derby. The other leads to the absurd Prix Du Moulin outcome. It's time for a Third Way.

The political Third Way traditionally applied a practical centrist synthesis of the right and left wing, effectively taking the best parts of both. It surely can't be beyond the wit of those at the helm of racing's tier one administrations to do something similar. If both sets of rules have their flaws then they also have their virtues.

Now that the French have followed the herd in Europe there's a temptation to insist that racing in the US and Canada gets into line with everyone else. But that Moulin finish between Circus Maximus and Romanised starkly illustrated the impact of that decision by France Galop to conform for the sake of international pool betting revenue.

A regulatory culture that gives so much of the benefit to a transgressor, and which relies on interpretative ideas of who the supposed best horse in the race might be, leads to the sort of dumb result that has Circus Maximus keeping the race despite blatantly compromising the chances of his nearest rival.

In a broader sense that culture also produces the sort of reckless race riding that is effectively condoned by an official nod and wink and which rewards jockeys who indulge in accidentally on purpose drifting. It gets put down to jockeyship but it makes an already difficult job even more dangerous, particularly so given how rules get interpreted in this part of the world.

Category One also applies in Australia but it was noticeable how surprised many were that Frankie Dettori got an eight day ban after his Melbourne Cup defeat. Dettori described his drift on Master Of Reality as producing minimal interference. Here he probably wouldn't have been called in for it. But that doesn't fly with the Aussies.

How jockeys ride to the rules that are enforced was underlined especially at the Breeders Cup where there was a minimum of such 'jockeyship.' That's because the Category Two rules are black and white. A horse is taken down if it interferes with a rival or does something that causes another horse to finish further back than it otherwise would.

Say what you like but it has the priceless quality of being straightforward. Riders know the score and behave accordingly. When the subsequent Breeders Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso got thrown out of September's Jockey Club Gold Cup there was minimal reaction. Here there's no way of knowing which way it would have went.

However the downside of Category Two has never been more vividly illustrated than by how Maximum Security became the first ever Kentucky Derby winner to be thrown out back in May. There's no argument with the stewards. They interpreted and enforced the rules as they stand. But it was Kafkaesque in terms of sporting logic and net outcome.

The absence of sensible interpretation of the incident which cost Maximum Security the race corresponds to the excessive levels of hunch and instinct at play elsewhere. Maximum Security would have kept the race here. Romanised would have got the race in the US. Both would have been correct, practical and just outcomes.

Michael O'Leary's business success has been built on his way being the only way. Considering there are reportedly over a billion examples of how that's paid off for him he can be excused a certain self-confidence about his judgement. But when it comes to his recent comments about not risking Tiger Roll under 11.10 for a potential Grand National hat-trick the Ryanair boss is way off-beam.

The Grand National is either a fair challenge or it isn't. O'Leary has doubled down on his belief that asking a small horse like Tiger Roll to carry 11.10 in the race is too great a risk. Implicit in that statement is that the National is too hard even for a horse who has blatantly mastered Aintree's unique challenge. It leaves the race wide open. If it's too severe for Tiger Roll then it surely is for any horse.

Any owner is entitled to campaign their horse how they want. But there's no point pretending that a high-profile star like Tiger Roll doesn't operate in a wider contest. There are those opposed to the National, and indeed to racing in general. Not taking up the challenge of possible National history due to supposed welfare concerns is a potential PR own-goal sure to be eagerly availed of.

The same applies to those uneasy about another big name, Faugheen, embarking on a novice chase career less than 50 days before he officially turns 12. No doubt there were more than a few winces when the former Champion Hurdle winner made a dreadful blunder half way through his debut over fences at Punchestown on Saturday.

Such unease is well-meaning but essentially misguided. If fences are considered a fair challenge in general then they must be specifically, even for veteran stars that have already carved a place out for themselves in popular affections. It might even be argued that novice chasing is more suitable for a grizzled pro like Faugheen rather than some callow four or five year old that's still maturing.

As it turned out there's clearly plenty fire left in Faugheen's belly. The way he rallied from that mistake, and an unpromising looking position after three out, was seriously impressive. A new career avenue looks to have opened up for 'The Machine.' Giving into sentiment would have ruled that out and left racing open to accusations of hypocrisy.

Such charges have been thrown at Horse Racing Ireland in particular over its handling of the Supreme Racing Club saga which now appears to be in limbo after the group had its ownership cancelled last week. Official tightening up of general membership rules within syndicates has the stamp of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted in relation to this specific episode.

Theoretical questions still exist though about the extent of HRI's role in administering the fallout of this sorry story. Is it sufficient for a semi-state body charged with running a sector to wash its hands of the matter and simply say disputes over ownership are ultimately for the parties involved to sort out through the courts? Or does there need to be more of an effective governance role?

More practical queries though revolve around the future of Supreme's string, particularly steeplechasing's highest rated performer, Kemboy. Confident noises have been made about a new ownership arrangement for the horses which will allow them run. But a complicated interweave of percentages in each animal may not quickly and conveniently unravel just like that.

It's a context which makes the decision by all bookmakers to leave Kemboy unchanged on top of ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Gold Cup all the more noticeable. We're assured that ante-post prices are influenced by all sorts of circumstances. Uncertainty about whether or not a horse will even be able to run this season is surely a circumstance that deserves being factored in.

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THE IRISH TIMES