Ronan McNally© Photo Healy Racing
I've been around horse racing all my life and at this stage it’s not too often that I’m overly surprised by anything, but Tuesday’s verdicts in the Ronan McNally Referral case certainly stunned me.
I honestly wasn’t expecting anything like the magnitude and range of sanctions imposed. The headline disqualification of McNally for 12 years is effectively career ending. To try and put this into some sort of perspective Gordon Elliott would have had to sit on 24 dead horses to get an equivalent ban.
So what exactly was McNally found guilty of? There were a whole range of charges, but when you boil it down he was basically judged to have stopped a number of his own horses to get low handicap ratings, concealed the fact that he owned some of them at the time and was also involved in a corrupt or fraudulent practice of passing on inside information for betting purposes. Overall his actions were deemed to have caused serious damage to the interests of horse racing in Ireland.
I would suggest that you’d struggle to find any trainer in the country that hasn’t at least tried to get a horse a lower initial handicap mark than its true ability at some stage in their career. The handicap system basically encourages the practice. That said, few have attempted or for that matter succeeded in doing it on the scale that McNally did it.
Concealing the true ownership of a horse is hardly anything that unusual. Certainly not from the general public at least. All anyone needs to do is register the ownership in a syndicate name. There is no public register of who is involved in these syndicates so the only people that know are the staff in the Registry Office of Horse Racing Ireland.
The passing on of inside information for betting purposes, particularly when it appears that information was used to bet against his horses winning is a serious offence. Point-to-Point handler Ciarán Fennessy was found guilty of the same offence at the Hearing and effectively had his licence withdrawn for one year and fined €5,000.
McNally has not just had his licence to train suspended for an extended period, like for example Stephen Mahon, instead he is deemed a disqualified person which means he will not be able to attend any race meeting before 2035. So if his son Tubs, who has aspirations to become a jockey, does make it on the circuit his father will not be permitted to come and watch him.
Aside from the 12 years away from the sport as a disqualified person McNally is also expected to pay €50,000 towards costs in the case and hand back a further €40,300 in prize money won by various horses he owned.
Ronan McNally’s associate, trainer David Dunne, who raced three horses under his own name knowing they were owned by McNally and was also involved in concealing the true ability of these horses for the purpose of attaining lower handicap marks will effectively serve a six months suspension of his licence and pay a fine of €5,000.
The three horses Dunne trained for McNally - All Class, Full Noise and Petrol Head - are to be disqualified from races in which they won prize money while in Dunne’s care. Dreal Deal and The Jam Man, which McNally trained himself, are also to be disqualified from selected races where they showed dramatic improvement in form.
These verdicts have set a number of precedents, no other horses have ever been disqualified from races for reasons of showing improvement in form, or to my knowledge for running in the wrong ownership, never mind years after the races took place.
The IHRB certainly threw the book at McNally. And I suppose the main difference between McNally and the significant cohort of similar characters associated with the sport is that he did it in such a cavalier manner. He basically didn’t give a damn and flaunted the fact that he was getting one over on the authorities and the bookies.
The late Barney Curley carried on in a very similar fashion to McNally, always planning strokes, pulling off gambles and I’m sure he wasn’t averse to running his own horses in other people’s names to get a better price. But now a telephone box in Bellewstown is practically a shrine to the man. He is revered and lauded as an intrinsic part of the rich tapestry that makes up the sport of horse racing.
A few points from the McNally case really puzzle me. Firstly, McNally was found guilty of the allegation that he “failed to properly school both Dreal Deal and/or The Jam Man for exiting starting stalls in preparation for their maiden flat races.”
This seems one allegation, admittedly minor, that should have easily been refuted by McNally as no horse is allowed to be declared for a flat race unless it has first obtained a stalls certificate issued by the IHRB. How did both horses manage to pass the stalls examination if they hadn’t been properly schooled in advance by McNally?
Another point is in relation to a charge proved against David Dunne where he was found to be “in breach of Rule 212(vii) in failing to lodge the correct ownership details with the Registry Office in Horse Racing Ireland before entering and/or running All Class, Full Noise and Petrol Head.”
Trainer Patrick Griffin trained All Class before it was transferred to Dunne and according to the evidence he also failed to lodge the correct ownership details with the Registry Office. All Class ran in a total of eight races when trained by Griffin, but not only was that trainer not sanctioned in relation to these offences he wasn’t even asked to give evidence at the Referral Hearing.
Then there were a number of charges against two unlicensed individuals, Liam Fennessy and his son Aaron, on which the Committee decided to make no findings. The Committee was unsure as to whether or not the board had any jurisdiction over these men as they have no direct involvement with horse racing.
That said, the charges in relation to these two individuals are some of the most significant of all the charges in the entire case. It was betfair exchange accounts belonging to these two men that were used to profit from inside information about horses owned by Ronan McNally that would not win. On two separate occasions both betfair accounts were used to lay Dreal Deal not to be placed in races at Clonmel (the horse finished down the field each time). These accounts were also subsequently used to back the same horse when it landed a big gamble at Navan. “The evidence of their betting on Dreal Deal shows that they had knowledge of the expectations for the horse on the day. Any other explanation is simply not credible.”
You would expect that anyone, licensed or not, that is found to have profited from insider information and conspired to defraud other individuals should face some sanction. Even if it wasn’t in the remit of the Committee or Board to ‘warn off’ the pair it would seem prudent to send a file to the Gardai or at the very least request that their betfair exchange accounts be closed?
If I thought for one minute that the McNally case was going to represent a watershed moment for the sport I’d say all the effort that went into this investigation was worth it, but in truth nothing is likely to change. It will still be a case of ‘triers to the front’ in Maiden Hurdles and everyone turning a blind eye when one of the big yards gets their holiday money backing the stable’s outsider.