Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Doesn't Do Exactly What It Says On The Tin

Captain Guinness takes off ahead of Andy Dufresne at the last at Punchestown
© Photo Healy Racing

There's often a gap between what racing says on the tin and what actually happens. For instance, officially, every horse must be ridden to achieve its best position. It's a nice theory. Another instance is how the preservation of public confidence in the sport as a betting medium is vital. Yet trainers and jockeys climbing into commercial bed with bookmakers has consistently been whitewashed as a harmless earner. It shows how this is no straightforward tin.

Having long argued that licensed professionals having so called 'ambassadorial' roles for gambling firms is a blatant reputational own-goal in terms of integrity and perception there's a weary sense of déjà vu about the fallout from last week's saga over Altior and how his big-race scratching was confirmed by Nicky Henderson through a bookmaker blog.

It should go without saying that allowing market sensitive information to look like it has been filtered through a bookmaker before entering the public realm is ridiculous. Even the flimsiest aspiration towards providing as level a playing pitch as possible to the betting public is reduced to meaninglessness when such practises are officially tolerated.

If such instances are rare then columns and blogs under the names of some of racing's biggest names have become ubiquitous. Gordon Elliott and Joseph O'Brien are associated with Betfair. Jessica Harrington is linked to Unibet. Her jockey, Robbie Power, is the face of Boylesports and he's Just one of a number of high-profile riders on 'ambassadorial' duty for various firms.

Once again it's worth pointing out how the vast majority of this stuff is harmless ghosted tosh with rarely little more than 'hope for the best' nonsense that only the most naive could mistake for a glimpse into what's really going on.

It would also be interesting to statistically examine just how much traffic - and how many new accounts are opened - is generated by this sort of branding but it certainly pays off for a tiny elite at the top of the game. The question arises though about what cost there is to racing's overall credibility.

In integrity terms there are a lot more pressing pragmatic issues than this. And no one can believe that preventing such links will be some kind of magic wand in terms of maintaining punter confidence. But official reluctance to prevent such a blatant reputational own-goal has always seemed a symptom of regulatory reluctance to upset the overall commercial applecart.

This is easy stuff. Trainers and jockeys should not be sponsored by gambling firms. Yes, what's involved in the vast majority of these arrangements is a harmless but lucrative 'PR' exercise. But preaching integrity and imposing official rules on jockeys and trainers in relation to bookmakers while also allowing them be the face of firms isn't just window dressing but a cop-out.

News last week that these links suddenly don't sit comfortably with the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board initially struck many as a simple reaction to the Altior story. However the topic had been raised prior to Christmas in a meeting between the IHRB and the Irish Jockeys Association. It is also shortly to be discussed with the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association.

Those talks with the IJA included dialogue on long-awaited new gambling control legislation which has been in the pipeline since 2013 but now might actually come to something if any upcoming general election doesn't delay things even more.

On the face of it such a blank legislative sheet appears a good opportunity to not only bring gambling law into the modern era but also introduce new legal standards on what is and isn't permissible when it comes to advertising and branding across the gambling spectrum.

There have been fears in the past about possible legal action had any move been taken within racing itself to move on this issue. The IJA for instance insists that its members aren't technically sponsored by bookmakers. It's a distinction that probably flies over the heads of most race fans when they see extensive bookmaker advertising featuring well-known trainers and riders.

Privately it seems there is some confidence that when - or if - the new gambling control bill ever comes on the statute books it can provide the framework to tackle this issue. But really it has been hanging over the sport for too long as evidence of a regulator ignoring what it says on the tin when it comes to public perception of an obvious integrity problem.

That's the context of Willie Mullins's comment that the IHRB is late coming to the party on this issue. The champion trainer has long been a notable exception when it comes to turning down sponsorship offers from bookmakers - IHRB ‘late coming to the party’ on sponsorship issue, says Mullins

Separately, more room was found on the tin last summer for a five year strategic plan by the IHRB which was released at the time with extreme discretion.

A cursory glance at it basically reveals a repeat of objectives and ambitions that are nothing new but which apparently require a near 25 per cent funding increase over the coming three years. Given the financial restrictions in place for Horse Racing Ireland's 2020 budget, and Brexit uncertainty still a reality, it looks odds against about such extravagance occurring any time soon.

As for actual racing most eyes are already training in on the upcoming Dublin Racing Festival in terms of concrete clues for the Cheltenham festival. Henry De Bromhead is likely to be heavily represented at the €1.8 million Leopadstown showpiece where, given last year's controversy over a lack of watering, the odds on anything but soft ground must be long.

De Bromhead might run his smart novice Captain Guinness at that event. But if he doesn't there was still enough in the five year old's runner up performance to Andy Dufresne at Punchestown on Sunday to make him worthy of consideration for Cheltenham's Supreme Novices Hurdle in nine weeks time.

It's rare to see a horse run as rank as Captain Guinness did in a quality Grade Two event and still wind up fighting out the finish. In fact if he hadn't fluffed the last he might have got the better of Andy Dufresne. The latter mightn't have been full suited by Punchestown's inner track but he was still put to the pin of his collar to overhaul a horse that ran with the choke out for most of the race - ask your parents what a 'choke' is kids.

Considering it was just Captain Guinness's second ever start the effort appeared to indicate considerable natural talent. It will be vital to his long-term prospects that he learns to settle better and it would be no surprise to maybe see a hood applied next time he runs. But if he learns from Sunday then this is a novice that looks one to note wherever he goes.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 10 days from the date of publication.

Latest Stories which may interest you

THE IRISH TIMES