5 Things from 2016 (x3)
The world outside racing – you know, the real one – has become discombobulated in 2016 and our sport finds itself in the unusual position of appearing sane by comparison, writes Tony Keenan. With post-truthers everywhere, racing has actually been a relative bastion of sense over the past twelve months and on the whole it’s been a pretty good year.
5 Things I liked in 2016
- Aidan O’Brien’s Season
That O’Brien is the best flat trainer around is hardly a revelation but even by his exacting standards 2016 was a spectacular campaign. His horses got unusually hot early and stayed that way for most the year. Not everything went right, notably with his three-year-old colts like US Army Ranger and Air Force Blue, but as has often been the case in the past he adapted, campaigning fillies like Minding and Found in the races the colts would otherwise have run in. The Arc 1-2-3 was an immense achievement, even in a down year for the race, and such is the depth in his yard, 2017 promises more of the same.
- The Mouse Morris Narrative
In general I prefer facts and analysis to narrative when watching racing but it was impossible not to get caught up in the story of Mouse Morris in the spring of 2016. Morris is the chain-smoking son of a former IOC president, colourful enough in racing terms, and was visited with tragedy when his son was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in the summer of 2015. No sporting achievement will ever heal that hurt but that didn’t lessen the joy provided by a Grand National double at Fairyhouse and Aintree with Rogue Angel and Rule The World, the latter’s first chase win over the big fences giving credence to the National being a lottery race. The parade of the winner through the streets of Mullingar brought back memories of a simpler time, even if the owner is a billionaire, and this was one time when the story was more important than the bet.
- Attention on Jockey Mental Health
Starting the conversation is one of those trite phrases about mental health but it doesn’t make it any less true; no more than any person with a mental health problem, each jockey brings their own content to their condition, but many of their issues stem from the arduous life they have chosen. Wasting, serious injury, success and failure, alcohol and drug abuse are all common themes and this is a multi-layered problem. Kieren Fallon and Graham Lee, amongst others, have spoken about their struggles this past year and it all helps to bring it out in the open but with the demise of Garret Gomez earlier this month we were reminded of just how serious the problem actually is.
- Andy Slattery
Small trainers doing well have long been a feature of the Irish scene but these days it’s more evident on the flat than over jumps and Slattery was the standout ‘punching-above-his-weight’ handler this term; having never sent out more than seven winners in a season before this year, he had 18 in 2016. Central to this annus mirabilis was Creggs Pipes, a Galway Mile and listed race winner that started the year racing off 77, while the likes of Sors and Planchart showed him in a good light too. Slattery was excellent in his analysis of his runners in the media and while it’s unlikely he will reach these peaks again, his campaign should be enjoyed for what it was.
- Peak-Aftertiming from Weld and Heffernan
After-timing might be the bane of punters but there is something hilarious about the shameless hindsight shown by jockeys and trainers after they have a winner when interviewers could barely get a whimper from them beforehand. Dermot Weld is obviously the best exponent of the practice in Ireland, his ‘he/she did what we thought he/she would do’ a cult catchphrase at this stage, and it looked like he would carry all before him after the exploits for Harzand and Fascinating Rock in the first half of the season. His loss of the Galway trainers’ title was a cruel blow for fans of after-timing and his season rather went south after the summer but Seamie Heffernan soon stepped into the breach, riding plenty of big winners in the absence of Ryan Moore. Heffernan’s after-timing is different to Weld’s self-satisfied smugness but no less enjoyable; he pours scorn on the very thought that defeat for one of his rides could be countenanced in post-victory interviews.
5 Thinks I didn’t like in 2016
- HRI Fiasco
By the sounds of the excellent reporting from Johnny Ward in the Irish Independent, some of the dealing going on behind the scenes in Horse Racing Ireland would make the dodgiest of trainers wince. We’ve had a CEO getting an extra term in office that is prohibited by legislation, that self-same CEO writing the advertisement for his own job, no interview process to find if there were any other suitable candidates along with a world of behind-the-scenes lobbying. What a mess.
- Jockey Blogs
Only the churlish would resent jockeys for trying to earn a few extra quid (god knows, some of them need it) but I wish they could avoid writing blogs, or at least have blogs ghosted for them. Not only are the vast majority of them bland and written in such a way as to be as inoffensive as possible but the ones that are published on bookmaker websites are an ethical swamp. The sport is incestuous enough without adding moral grey areas where the bookies are ringing up riders for insights on the rides they will later lay bets on.
- Mullins and the Media
Speaking of useless columns, the Willie Mullins Saturday piece in the Racing Post reigns supreme. I’ve heard some journalists praise Mullins for his availability for comment but the value of what he is actually saying is questionable; we have seen again and again a lack of clarity around where his horses might run and at times punters being actively misled, such as with Vautour’s target at the most recent Cheltenham Festival. By and large, most trainers can give a reasonable idea of where their horses are running a few days in advance; if they meet a setback in the interim, so be it. Mullins backers could point to his having so many horses but other trainers have big strings too and there is no reason why punters should have to wait until declaration stage to find out what he is running; this, after all, is the trainer with the most high profile column in the industry paper. As we’ve seen in the past few days, there is another way; Colin Tizzard and his owners were able to give their King George running plans at the five-day stage whereas no one could even get Mullins to say whether or not he had entered horses in the re-opened Christmas Hurdle.
- Camera Angles
AtTheRaces provide excellent coverage of Irish racing but it is disappointing that between themselves, Horse Racing Ireland and the various Irish tracks that the camera angles at most of these venues haven’t changed much if at all since the coverage started. There are a number of courses like Down Royal, Punchestown and Leopardstown where the viewer is treated to shots of the horses’ rear-ends heading away from the stands and it is high-time some money was spent on improving these angles.
- Stewards not asking questions
I’ll cover the new non-trier rules in the final section but one constant negative with racing in Ireland is the lack of questioning for jockeys and trainers after a race. Perhaps this is apathy, perhaps laziness but whatever the reason, more use should be made of this aspect of the steward’s role. None of this is to suggest that horses are being stopped wholesale; there are many cases where horses have run poorly that have utterly valid explanations. As a punter, there is nothing as frustrating as reading or listening to a trainer interview after a win where he mentions an obvious reason for a horse’s below-par effort on its last outing that was never noted down in the initial report by the stewards on the day.
5 Things for 2017
- Mullins V. Elliott
When Gigginstown initially announced they were moving their horses from Willie Mullins, Paddy Power reacted by installing Elliott as favourite to win the Irish trainers’ championship, a move that soon corrected back to Mullins being a hard market leader. That price shift doesn’t look as silly now with Mullins trading at 4/6 while Elliott is 11/10. This is a very real competition and a clash of methodologies; whereas Mullins is more about quality, Elliott is a numbers guys as befits someone that learned his trade under Martin Pipe. The stats here are fascinating. As of December 21st, Elliott had run 223 individual horses while Mullins had run 120 but a better context is Mullin’s numbers over the last three seasons which are 191, 177 and 195 respectively. Irish jump racing has never seen a stable as big numerically as Elliott’s and he could even break 300 individual runners in the season. I can this one see-sawing all the way to Punchestown so get the popcorn ready.
- Sectional Times in Ireland
I’ve never understood the dismissiveness from some people for sectional times; even if you don’t value them, more information for punters is never a bad thing and your preferred information type (horse weights, for example) might be the next thing that is brought in. The Irish Field reported on November 26th that sectional times are going to be brought in on Irish racing on January 1st and it won’t just be sectional times; the system will have full GPS coverage with distance covered and speeds attained too. The cynic in me remains sceptical that they will miraculously appear after the turn of the year but apparently all the courses have been surveyed so you never know.
- ITV Racing
Another new arrival for New Year’s Day, and one that is certain to happen, is ITV Racing and it’s something to look forward to even allowing that much of their coverage prior to Cheltenham will be off the main channel. Perhaps I’m buying into the hype a little but Ed Chamberlin’s passion for the sport is infectious and the channel has extensively promoted their coverage through a number of their most popular non-sporting programmes. It’s certainly a good start as is the use of a specialist weather forecaster and I’m fascinated to see what road the coverage takes. The news that TV3 will be providing coverage of roughly 50 ITV Racing days was fantastic for Irish viewers as some of them were about to be without coverage with ITV4 not being available in all homes.
- New Non-Trier Rules
The Turf Club had some high-profile non-trier cases that were overturned in 2016 which has led them to change their rules on the subject, bringing in a grading system for the severity of offence. As ever, the initial reaction to these beefed-up rules from trainers and jockeys was scepticism and I can hardly remember a case in Ireland that wasn’t appealed; accepting your guilt just isn’t an option. There’s part of me that thinks you just have to trust the authorities to get it right and not constantly be challenging them but when you read about events in the HRI above one wonders about their ability to do so. Proving a non-trier is as difficult as it ever was so these rules will be tough to enforce.
- The Curragh Races On
One of the stranger decisions this year was for the Curragh to race on in 2017 while the track is being redeveloped with temporary structures in use. It smacks a little of greed and one wonders how the racing surface will take having so many races in a short space of time; for all its problems, the actual surface at the Curragh has always been brilliant but a more condensed programme could take its toll. Other tracks will benefit from some of the fixtures being transferred, notably Naas, and while meetings like the Lincoln are hardly the best-attended, it’s a great lift for these courses.
- Tony Keenan