Jaafel winning Friday's Claiming race at Dundalk© Photo Healy Racing
News in the Irish Times last week that Arena Racing Company (ARC) is in negotiations to buy Dundalk Racecourse has the potential to further complicate an already precarious Media Rights situation for the sport.
As discussed previously in this column the latest Media Rights deal negotiated by a Horse Racing Ireland committee on behalf of Ireland’s 26 racecourses has not yet been ratified by all the racecourses, with a group of the smaller courses unhappy with the lack of details they were initially given by HRI.
The racecourses will finally receive full disclosure of the deal this week and should everything be to their satisfaction the next five year deal will be rubber stamped and the sport will continue to be broadcast to the public on the subscription service, Racing TV.
This Media Rights deal is worth in the region of €40 million a year to the racecourses and represents the vast majority of their annual income, but fans of the sport must pay a monthly subscription of €30 to view the product on TV.
ARC was part of a consortium that lost out in the latest Media Rights battle to secure the TV rights for Irish racing for this next five year period. If they had been successful the pictures would have switched from Racing TV to At The Races and Sky Sports Racing and fans would have avoided the monthly subscription.
ARC already owns 16 racecourses in the UK including five of the seven all-weather tracks. The pictures from all of their racecourses, including their flagship Group One course at Doncaster, are broadcast on At The Races rather than Racing TV.
If they are successful in buying Dundalk Stadium they will have to suck up any Media Rights deal already agreed by the racecourse, but it will certainly be their intention to switch the Dundalk pictures to their own partnership at the first available opportunity.
HRI had something of a love-hate relationship with Dundalk in the beginning and the all weather track was underutilised for the first decade. It was only through necessity that the course was granted a suitable allocation of fixtures in recent years and it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out if ARC do take over the reins at Dundalk Stadium.
While on the subject of Dundalk there were some concerning betting trends in the opening race at the track last Friday. One month away from the third anniversary of the Tony The Gent - Yuften Claiming race two of the same stable’s horses were the subject of dramatic market moves in advance of Friday’s Claimer.
The 79 rated Jaafel (up to 10lbs wrong on official ratings) was backed from 11/2 in to 2/1 favourite while one of his stablemates Big Baby Bull (rated 86) went in the opposite direction in the betting (2/1 out to 8/1).
Once again, those who knew really did know and Jaafel duly won the race. Big Baby Bull finished tenth while another major drifter in the market, the 89 rated Roderick (7/2 to 16/1) -coincidently in the same ownership as both Tony The Gent and Yuften three years ago - trailed home in twelveth.
When you break down the result, with the benefit of hindsight, you could argue that Big Baby Bull was having his first run for 181 days (shouldn’t really be an excuse) and Roderick may have bounced from his comeback run 14 days earlier (but hard to predict that in advance).
Many people will probably say “sure it’s only a Claimer on the all weather, what do you expect?” and if you are long enough around this game you will know they are right. But why should punters have to accept that not all races are the same? Afterall, the money they bet on the sport is exactly the same whether it’s a Grade 1 at Cheltenham in two weeks or a lowly Claimer at Dundalk.
Oftentimes the sort of horses that contest these races are ones that are on the downgrade, either because they are suffering from some minor ailment - such as wind problems - or they have fallen out of love with the game, and their handicap rating doesn’t reflect their true ability to perform at this stage of their career. When a horse loses its form completely the handicapping system cannot keep pace with their decline. They are dropped a pound or two each time they run, but this doesn’t reflect their current ability in the same way it did at their peak.
There is no way for a casual bettor to know which horses in these Claimers can reproduce form to match their current rating and which ones can’t. You would have to feel sympathy for any punter that sided with Roderick at 7/2 ahead of last Friday’s race. He was the top-rated horse on official figures, had a credible recent run and was due to be partnered by the Champion Jockey. To then watch him drift out to odds of 16/1, rear up as the stalls opened, miss the break and remain out the back of the field for the rest of the race can’t have been a nice feeling for those punters that lost money on him.
The purpose of these Claiming races is as an aid to facilitate the buying and selling of horses and to that end they are very successful - three horses were successfully claimed from Friday’s race. But from an ordinary punter’s perspective they are a minefield.
Maybe it would be better for the sport if these Claiming Races were run behind closed doors in a similar way to the Barrier Trials at Dundalk. Their primary objective would still be achieved, but there’d be a lot less disgruntled punters afterwards.