Begging The Questions

Mon 17th Apr 2017, 09:08

Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud colours to be worn by 14 riders in Irish Grand National
©Healy Racing Photos

Brian O'Connor's Weekly Blog
It's the job of those charged with promotion to promote so it's hard to criticise bigging-up this year's Boylesports Irish Grand National and its new €500,000 pot. Almost doubling the prizemoney was linked to boosting the National's quality and profile. There's no doubt a tagline of the richest jumps race ever run in Ireland is snappy. But quality-wise it's hard not to think the same field would still have turned up for the old money no matter what anyone says.

What Fairyhouse really needed to justify those 'race of the highest quality' lines was for at least one of the topweights, a true Grade 1 performer like Outlander or Carlingford Lough, to stay in the race. It even looked to be teed up when Michael O'Leary took Outlander out of Aintree. Except more money or not Punchestown's Grade 1 has proved more attractive.

The outcome is Lord Scoundrel at topweight off a rating of 156. Last year Cause Of Causes was top off a similar mark only to be a non-runner. It's better than the previous two topweights If In Doubt (151) and Cantlow (150) but identical to the rating Junior had in 2013 and just 1lb more than the 2011 topweight who was no less than Synchronised. There could again be a future Gold Cup winner in this race too. But we're still talking potential rather than the proven top-class deal.

The number of entries for the Easter Monday highlight was up this year, and it's noticeable that seven of the declared field are rated 150 plus. However pinning 'best ever National' tags on this field is way too big a stretch and smacks of racing's tried and trusted hard-sell that more prizemoney is the solution to everything.

What this National really shows is that the impact of dramatically more prizemoney on already very rich owners appears to be negligible.

How influential that handful of top owners are has rarely been more illustrated than Michael O'Leary owning almost half the 30 declared Irish National runners in his pursuit of a third win in a row in the race.

There's no 'solution' to this. HRI's Brian Kavanagh is correct to say restricting where owners and trainers can and can't run their horses is unworkable. But there's no point pretending either that one individual with 14 runners in such a high-profile race inevitably, even if they do appear to be mostly outsiders, makes it look lopsided. And given the reserve system in place for the Irish National there are repercussions to such numerical strength in depth if horses get taken out on the day.

Perhaps the most important utterance at last week's Appeal hearing into the Music Box run at Dundalk came from the panel chairman, Joe Finnegan, who referred to the new 'running and riding' rules - and the requirement for jockeys to be seen to make an effort - as "an objective test."

Retired Supreme Court Justice's pick their words carefully. Given it was Aidan O'Brien, and a Coolmore owned horse, at the centre of a failed 'Non-Trier' appeal, the proceedings had the air of a definitive statement by the Turf Club that it's back with a vengeance in the regulatory business.

After watching proceedings however it seems a remarkable system to let a three-man appeals panel to its own devices when interpreting racing's complex rule book. An appearance of impartiality is important. But that surely wouldn't be interfered with by a panel having recourse to professional expertise when it comes to interpretation.

Amateur stewards aren't let loose on the racecourse without assistance from a stipendiary official: what an appeals body has to deal with, and in pressurised situations too, is often even more complex. But they're required to go it alone which appears illogical.

Last Monday's panel looked to get it right when interpreting Wayne Lordan's ride through the new rule, a rule which is a last resort considering previous failures to make penalties stick.

And it's that last resort reality which makes the negative position adopted by the trainers and jockeys associations seem even more reactionary. It's inevitable those used to a certain way of doing things will prove a little resistant to change. However this comes across like nostalgia for the supposed good old days in which regulation had effectively turned into a joke. And it begs the obvious question as to why there is such resistance to some much-needed change?

It's in such a context that Johnny Murtagh's comments after Tobacco Bay's victory last week carried extra weight. Tobacco Bay was after all one of the first penalised under the new Rule 212 last February. Murtagh's stated position that he welcomed the rule if it proved to be good for racing was admirably measured and illustrated at least this trainer's capacity to see beyond narrow self-interest.

The problem with questions begging to be asked is that they don't go away, something which seems to be beyond the understanding of the breeding industry too.

Attempts to broker a protocol between the Turf Club and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association in relation to testing at unlicensed yards now resemble a can which has been kicked to smithereens down the never-ending road. And since everyone publicly agrees the bloodstock industry is drug-free, and Ireland's international reputation as being drug-free is of paramount importance, the obvious question continues to be why the delay?

It's notable how 'shtum' those involved in negotiations are keeping but there are inevitably whispers and remarkably it seems the subject of notice periods before testing is still on the table. Incredibly it seems the idea that three days notice before any visit by drug testers is still part of the ITBA strategy. Even more remarkable is that the Turf Club might be willing to haggle on this.

Only in Ireland, and perhaps most of all in Irish racing, could such a fudge be considered workable. By any reasonable measure the idea of testers giving notification of their arrival is a joke. It automatically discredits the whole point of the exercise. In fact it actually makes matters worse because the exercise is so blatantly a cosmetic exercise.

Maybe it's all actually a black joke. But since no one's talking it's hard to know for sure. And all of it begs the obvious question: if everything's really above board and ship-shape what's the problem?

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