Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Carrying A Bit Of Timber

Mon 4th Dec 2017, 08:11

Gordon Elliott and his staff show off their 3 grade 1 winners at Fairyhouse
©Hong Kong Jockey Club
It's typical how racing gets its transparency knickers in a twist fixating on a minefield area like wind operations yet ignores the much more fundamental performance issue of weight. No matter how technical the data there remains nothing more important to athletic fitness than belly size. Recording a horse's weight every time it goes to the races is a straightforward exercise practised around the racing world. It's a no-brainer. Yet the will to do it here seems to be nonexistent.

This is a much more relevant performance matter than the issue of wind operations. Obviously the more information put into the public domain the better. But the efficacy of the various types of wind operations is still a matter of debate and more importantly the policing of such a system is a potential nightmare.

Yet the authorities in Britain, and in Ireland, continue to ignore the merits of a much more straightforward move that would not only be simple to implement and police but actually provide practical, factual and relevant information to the betting public. It doesn't matter how clear-winded any athlete is if they're carrying timber.

Horse Body Weight has been a routine piece of information available to punters in Hong Kong for years. Jurisdictions in South America reportedly do the same. Yet in Ireland, the world leader in bloodstock and racing, there has been a consistent and conspicuous reluctance to invest in a simple apparatus that many trainers have at their home disposal as a matter of course.

The Remington Park track in Oklahoma reintroduced the practise of weighing horses at the track last year, describing the move as a key to transparency and something even the uninitiated can understand. Horses are weighed before going into the paddock and their weights displayed on-screen. After a number of races a history and pattern can develop.

That can aid punters. Crucially it can also help stewards. At the moment even non-experts can spot in the parade ring horses a long way from peak fitness and patently just out for a run. Stopping horses doesn't have to be about jockeys hiding in a race. It can also be leaving an animal in its box for a week beforehand. Then when the time is right that animal can be drilled to run for its life.

But pity the stewards trying to make such a case in a 'Non-Trier' enquiry when all they've got to go on is here-say and the evidence of their eyes. Armed with a record of a horse's weight every time it runs they can present a dispassionate picture of one of the most important elements in any athletic performance.

Having a scales at a track to weigh every horse is stone-age stuff in terms of technological challenge. Scales don't even cost that much. They may even pay for themselves in terms of tracks flogging the data they provide. It's doable, useful and transparent. But its introduction to racing in this part of the world is still dismissed in favour of convoluted efforts to appear to be doing something. And the obvious question is why? Because something might really change?

What's long odds against to change is Michael O'Leary's clarity of thought and readiness to speak his mind. That might mean those working for him being required sometimes to use anodyne phrases such as 'challenging' but linguistic neutrality is rarely employed by the Ryanair boss.

It's certainly hard to imagine any other winning owner welcoming back a star mare like Apple's Jade after Sunday's superb Hatton's Grace victory and sharing the view that she shouldn't really be getting a 7lb sex allowance from males. And a question about what the allowance should be met with a blunt response - nothing.

"I genuinely think the 7lbs is wrong at Grade One level. I think it's unfair. I think there should be no allowance. If you're good enough then take the geldings on at levels. I think it's unfair on the geldings.

"I know I'm after winning this race with her and she's a dinger. But Annie Power didn't need 7lbs to win a Champion Hurdle. I can see why four year olds might get an allowance and I'm not trying to be controversial. But I think allowances at Grade One level are wrong," O'Leary said.

Sex allowances have been a source of controversy in racing for some time but there's little doubt the sport's top owner reflects a lot of views when it comes to perceiving the mares allowance as an unfair advantage.

Just as the allowance female jockeys get in France seems excessive, so can a 7lb swing when it comes to an outstanding race mare. The theory is valid but looking at a tweak of the actual figures may be too. Either way O'Leary's dispassionate analysis was pretty impressive stuff in the circumstances.

Taking a little emotion out of the aftermath to three jockeys testing positive for cocaine may be no bad thing either. Ger Fox, Roger Quinlan and Danny Benson all got two year bans last week for positive tests at Galway in October but all had various suspensions and conditions put on those penalties that should see them back in action much sooner.

The headline response has been a new entry point penalty of a four year ban as a deterrent against drug use. It has been almost uniformly welcomed among representative groups.

Sure enough three jockeys out of 30 at a meeting testing positive for cocaine is startling. It's certainly enough to encourage an increased rate of testing even if the concept of deterrent is tricky when it comes to drugs.

Nevertheless it's perfectly possible to point out how unacceptable it is for jockeys to break the law, and threaten their colleagues health and safety by having substances in their system, while also wrinkling one's nose at some of the sanctimony swirling around the matter.

A starting point four year penalty would probably be enough to finish most riding careers. Four years is a sizable chunk out of any working life, never mind a sportspersons, and the justice system essentially works on a basis of getting a second chance once you've done your time. Not many second chances will be available after four years.

So a tweak of the figures might be no bad thing in relation to this matter too. Or maybe no tweak at all. If two years is currently the penalty for a positive drug test then simply enforce it.

Or if you're going to suspend a bit of a sentence don't suspend most of it. Eighteen months rather than six might deter - and I stress might - while also indicating seriousness on the matter. Then if someone re-offends throwing the book at them won't look such a reactionary move.

Finally a couple of responses to readers kind enough to get in touch: yes Total Recall keeping the Ladbroke Trophy despite his jockey Paul Townend breaking the whip rules and getting a four day ban is totally illogical. But I'm blue in the face pointing it out so there's no point elaborating again.

And secondly, I have been asked why I make only 'nudge-nudge' references to people breaking the rules rather than naming and shaming. The answer is twofold; most of the names are impossible to shame. But much more importantly, neither I or my employer has any wish to visit the High Court. It really is that 'simples.'

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