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Brian O'Connor

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A Process Undermined By Procedure

Valseur Lido and Ruby Walsh part companyValseur Lido and Ruby Walsh part company
© Photo Healy Racing

The argument for stewards relying on camera pictures at a central HQ has been made more than once in recent years and its credibility was boosted by the glacial progress of the Leopardstown enquiry following Who’s That’s handicap victory at the weekend. Everyone at the track could see there was a relatively straight-forward decision to be made. Official confirmation the placing remained unaltered though came just seconds before the off of the following Grade 1 race. Maybe some enjoyed the drama. More felt it looked amateurish.

There were reasons, with delays in getting some of the people involved in the enquiry assembled. The runner up’s jockey Philip Enright apparently then did a bang-up job arguing a case for the result to be changed. That’s hardly unreasonable from his point of view, just as it isn’t unreasonable for the stewards to be hot on making sure every procedure is seen to be gone through in case of any future appeal. But it’s all cosmetic.

Did anyone expect Enright to say anything bar he should get the race, or for Sean McDermott to argue anything bar the winner hanging on to it. There was nothing else involved in the enquiry, no veterinary evidence to be considered. It was a straight-forward interference case that even by interference standards was a relative no-brainer. And yet it turned into a mini-opera, a classic example of a process undermined by procedure.

Presumably everyone involved knew the score within seconds too. And yet the whole programme got bogged down in a decision that could have been sorted out in less than a minute by any competent stewards panel — professional or otherwise — faced with the pictures in front of them. What the jockeys added to proceedings was irrelevant. All they did was merely highlight why they shouldn’t be in there at all apart from in very exceptional circumstances.

There were automatic implications for betting in such a delay although hardly enough to explain a near- €345,000 drop on bookmaker turnover on one of the most prestigious days of the Irish jumps season. Tote turnover was relatively static on 2015 levels but perhaps the most eye-catching figure of all from Irish Gold Cup day was a near-2,000 drop in attendance to 9,336.

The temptation with such figures is always to indulge in doom and gloom and chivvy racecourses into doing a ‘something’ that is always an easy option for those notably vague about what that ‘something’ might actually be.

However it’s hard to know what else Leopardstown could have done. They served up a notably good card, moved to a Saturday to facilitate floating rugby fans, ‘morkoted’ the hell out of it and still came up a couple of thousand short on 2015, the explanation for which could easily be as simple as the lack of a big corporate sponsor such as Hennessy to hoover up a substantial chunk of tickets.

Follow the logic through in fact and it’s not difficult to argue that the 9,336 crowd comprise perhaps a core group of fans prepared to go racing when it’s shorn of any traditional Christmas considerations or corporate schmoozing. It’s a sobering thought in some way, but one which suggests they should be coveted by a lot of racecourses rather more than they are before worrying about what might be done to add to them.

As for the actual racing the sad reality is that for many the most lingering memory from the weekend action will be the hunters chase winner You Must Know Me breaking a leg as he crossed the line. Casual racegoers could well have been turned off forever by the sight of the horse having to be put down but sad as it undoubtedly was, the reality is injuries are inevitable. The where and when is uncontrollable: the response is. And if there’s consolation in this it was that the response appeared swift and professional.

In happier racing terms if ever a cliché got life injected back into it then Carlingford Lough’s Irish Gold Cup victory really did prove how pace makes the race. The fact Mark Walsh seriously considered pulling the winner up after the third last, not to mention how he was 999-1 with just one to jump, indicates how much of a hole most of the others fell into.

The obvious exception was Valseur Lido. Mistakes usually do come through tiredness but those arguing Carlingford Lough would have won anyway look to be drawing on a weak hand. No one will ever know for sure but Ruby Walsh’s comments afterwards indicated a man ruefully pondering what might have been.

Either way, it’s hard not to see Valseur Lido or Carlingford Lough as being resolutely among the second tier of Gold Cup contenders at Cheltenham. In fact if there was a first-division ‘blue-riband’ horse in Saturday’s race it probably still is Road To Riches despite the horse never looking happy.

Eddie O’Leary maintained beforehand that only rain-softened ground prevented Road To Riches winning last year’s Gold Cup. But that was ‘easy-peasy’ going compared to the weekend gluepot. It would still be intriguing to see Road To Riches on a decent surface in the Gold Cup. Big-picture wise though will the lasting impression from the 2016 Irish Gold Cup ultimately be that the four Irish trained horses at the head of the betting market for the Cheltenham Gold Cup skipped it?

There’s been a lot of doping talk lately which is good because it’s necessary but also regrettable since there are few things more boring than talking about drugs.

One thought though: amidst all the talk of extra money, resources and ambition, wouldn’t a useful start on the road to proper random testing be to empower racing officials with the capacity to actually turn up at an establishment and expect to be let in rather than have to make an appointment for a few days later when things are all neat and tidy? Or is that too obvious? Will another Task-Force have to steam out to sea to find out?