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Yorkhill, Melon, Markets and Investigations

One thing the Dublin Racing Festival didn’t need was a betting scandal of sorts, but that is what has unfolded in the aftermath of the Saturday card, with Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB, the old Turf Club) chief executive Denis Egan saying on Monday there would be an investigation into ‘suspicious betting patterns’ on Yorkhill and Melon in their respective races, writes Tony Keenan.

This was a strange move from the IHRB, unprecedented in fact, as I can’t recall them announcing an examination of a betting market before – and one that may amount to ‘nothing’ according to Egan – though perhaps they felt the need to at least say something given the profile of the races involved.

The Dublin Racing Festival was a shop window event for Irish racing and a success on many levels though for some it only served to confirm their worst suspicions about the sport in Ireland. There remains a general air of suspicion among punters towards Irish racing and that view applies to bettors both inside and outside Ireland. Irish punters are as likely, if not more so, to be sceptical of integrity of our racing as those betting from other jurisdictions. The nature of how some Irish jumps races are run, maiden hurdles and chases in particular, has become a standing joke except that it’s not all that funny when you consider the impact it can have on confidence in the sport as a betting product which has knock-on effects on punters.

With Yorkhill and Melon, it is worth outlining the facts as we know them. For much of Saturday morning, Yorkhill was trending away from favouritism in the Dublin Chase as money came for his stablemate, Min. Having started out around even money, he hit a high of 3.85 pre-race before returning a Betfair Starting Price of 2.94 prior to running a listless race, beaten over 80 lengths by the finish.

Melon was much more solid in the morning, attracting some support but then drifting out markedly from 3.95 on Betfair at 3:20 out to a high of 6.2 ten minutes later before going back into 5.9 at the off. He too ran flat and having initially seemed to settle better than usual, faded to finish fifth, beaten 12 lengths. After the race, the stewards did not ask for an explanation from trainer or jockey on either horse which clearly isn’t good enough on any level, though Willie Mullins has said in the interim that he had ‘no worries’ about either horse.

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I should state at this point that I believe that the game is generally straight – though as a form-based punter I would say that – and it isn’t hard to find logical, form-filled explanations for the run of Yorkhill at least. He was coming off a terrible effort at Christmas, the worst of his career prior to Saturday, and he was also dropping markedly in distance having not run over the minimum trip since December 2016. Perhaps training regimes for the different trips differ and he didn’t react well to the change and it could be argued that such a dramatic shift in trip was a desperation move from connections.

Furthermore, Yorkhill is mental.

This is a horse that basically bossed his jockey when winning at Aintree in April 2016 before doing the same in defeat at Fairyhouse last April; there was always a chance his temperament could let him down for all there were no outward shows of such at Leopardstown. With Melon, a form-based explanation comes to mind less readily. He came into the Irish Champion Hurdle off a career-best run and seemed primed for a big effort but below the level he achieved at Cheltenham on his penultimate start. Horses can and do run badly for no apparent reason every day of course.

One also needs to consider the nature of the markets on these races. Some have argued that while price moves like this are to be accepted in lower class races, they should not happen in Grade 2’s. I’m not so sure. This was not the Champion Chase at Cheltenham where the odds are largely set for weeks in advance; only a handful of firms had ante-post prices and turnover was surely low with no one sure whether Yorkhill or Min or both would run. Furthermore, we are constantly told how flaky early prices on Irish racing are so it shouldn’t be the greatest surprise that there was a late move even in a race of this class as it is the only time where punters of size can get on. Perhaps the initial prices were simply wrong in the eyes of some major players.

Ultimately, any arguments about the form of those involved or market dynamics are neither here nor there if something untoward happened, and on Saturday it was the speed and relentless nature of the drift on these pair of horses that led to some asking questions. With that said, we do need to be careful about drawing firm conclusions based on what is happening from just looking at the exchanges. Sometimes price drifts are innocuous, merely the product of another horse in the race being backed, and prices and offers move so fast that is hard to discern what is unfolding. Perhaps these markets offer the illusion of transparency rather than transparency itself.

When the IHRB start to investigate these cases – and it will take them a while to start as there is an inevitable time lag between the races themselves and getting the market information – one would hope they would look not just at the price drift but also at the volume of money being laid. Most important of all however is who might be laying a horse and how it fits in with their overall pattern of play; a lay bet to lose €20,000 may seem huge to many punters but for some that could be their standard stake. This sense of where the lay bets fit in has been the cornerstone of many successful cases brought by the BHA in recent years.

The IHRB have not brought anything like as many cases as the BHA and it is important to consider their powers. They have a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding with Betfair going back to 2007 that should create an audit trail and one assumes the channels between the two are open. However, there is no such agreement between the IHRB and Betdaq which is highly unsatisfactory and reflects badly on both. In May 2011, the IHRB created rules on the laying of horses and that was followed in September 2012 by a provision for accessing the phone and bank records of trainers and jockeys. Should those records need to be accessed the decision must be supported by an external adjudicating officer to ensure the investigation in justified. In February 2015, a confidential integrity hotline was established for anyone wishing to pass information anonymously.

This decade however there has only been one successful prosecution by the then-Turf Club as jockey Edward O’Connell and owner Robert Martin were banned for four and ten years respectively for events surrounding the running of Yachvili at Downpatrick in September 2011 and it took to May 2014 before the case was concluded. Betting records from Betfair were widely considered to be central to the case. The absence of further cases could say a number of things. Perhaps Irish racing is the cleanest around though I suspect there are few who totally subscribe to that theory. Or, possibly more likely, there is no great appetite to proceed with cases of this type as they are very difficult to build, bearing in mind that the Yachvili incident took two-and-a-half years to be resolved. I may be in the minority here but it might actually be good for Irish racing if there were more of these cases if only to act as a deterrent.

While all of this may have been a bad news story from the Dublin Racing Festival and Irish racing in general, it is important to point out a good piece of betting news that didn’t receive the coverage it deserved over the weekend. In an extension of their approach to live races on ITV, Ladbrokes guaranteed betting shop punters a lay-to-lose liability of €5,000 on the win part of bets on the 12 races televised on RTE across the two days. This was a big move, the first of its kind in Ireland, and Ladbrokes have over 140 shops here so it was meaningful. Ostensibly, there may appear to be no link between these guarantees and any IHRB investigations into irregular betting patterns but in fact they go hand-in-hand; for a betting company to have a reasonable degree of faith in the product on show, integrity must be of a high standard so what the IHRB do in cases like these does matter.

- Tony Keenan

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

It's now just two months until the tapes rise on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, so it's high time we had a look for some betting value in the antepost markets. The feature race on Day One, Tuesday, is the Unibet Champion Hurdle, a Grade 1 run over just beyond two miles. Lasy year's Champion Hurdler, Buveur D'Air, is a strong favourite to retain his crown, but is his odds-on quote justified? Let's take a look...

Champion Hurdle 2018 Trends

Age

Five-year-old Katchit in 2008 was the first of his age group to win this race since See You Then in 1985. None has won since, from 27 to try, though Celestial Halo and Binocular did round out the trifecta behind Punjabi the following year. Another year later, Zaynar ran third for the five-year-olds but, since 2010, just Countrywide Flame has hit the board.

Defi De Seuil, sixth in the betting, is the most high profile five-year-old in the antepost lists, though his participation is subject to an improved performance after flopping on his sole start this season (stable was in poor form at the time).

At the other end of the spectrum, those aged in double digits are 0 from 21 since 1997, though venerable veterans Hurricane Fly and My Tent Or Yours made the frame since 2015. The last double-digit aged winner was Sea Pigeon, whose second victory, aged eleven, came in 1981. That was 37 years ago, which is hardly a boon if you like either Faugheen, the second favourite, or My Tent Or Yours, fifth market choice.

A focus on six- to nine-year-olds would have found all bar one of the winners in the last thirty years, but is a statistic which eliminates three of the top six in the current betting.

 

Last Time Out

Champion Hurdlers tend to be winners. Obvious, right? Indeed, 16 of the last 20 winners also triumphed on their previous racecourse appearance, from 106 runners. There were 269 horses line up in those twenty renewals, meaning 39.4% of all runners won last time. And yet they accounted for 80% of the winners, and 60% of the placed horses.

If you want to go off road a little, look also to those who finished second last time. They accounted for two of the remaining four victories since 1997 (10% of the wins) from 20% of the runners. Not so hot, but the winning pair were 11/1 Rock On Ruby and 33/1 Hardy Eustace, which would have squirreled the bank out even at Betfair Starting Price.

Still, it's best to focus exclusively on last day winners. As things stand, of the remaining three in the top six of the betting, only Buveur D'Air won last time. This can, and probably will, change between now and March, so tread carefully.

 

Key Trials

The Ryanair Hurdle, run over Christmas at Leopardstown, has been a key trial in recent seasons, seven Champion Hurdle winners emerging from the race since 2000 to take Festival honours at Cheltenham. This season, with Faugheen pulling up, it was left to Mick Jazz to see off Cilaos Emery.

Kempton's Christmas Hurdle has been a solid pointer too, with this season's festive showpiece falling to Buveur D'air who saw off The New One.

The other kingmaker race is the Irish Champion Hurdle, which will be run at the beginning of next month. Most of that race's Champion Hurdle highlighting lustre comes from Brave Inca and especially Hurricane Fly in recent times.  Faugheen is slated for a bid to redeem his reputation in the race so it will make for interesting viewing and can be expected to have a bearing on the Champion Hurdle market.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Form Preview

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So much for the trends, which seem to put a line through all of Buveur D'air's main market rivals leaving him home free on paper. But, of course, the Champion Hurdle isn't run on paper, and thank the moon and the stars for that. Still, let's consider the compelling case for the jolly before engaging in the potential folly of trying to get him beaten.

Buveur D'Air is unbeaten in most of two years, since running third to Altior and Min in the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He's won eight on the bounce now, including last year's Champion Hurdle, and he's not been seriously tested. His official mark of 169 is clear of all bar the historical perch of Faugheen, a figure that one hasn't run to for two years. The seven year old is in the prime of his life, has seemingly had an uninterrupted preparation and, while a mooted trip to Ireland for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the beginning of February may be wide of the mark, he could have another spin before the Festival.

Trying to find reasons to oppose Buveur D'Air is tricky, still more so if taking slightly shorter with the Non Runner No Bet (NRNB) concession. If he gets to the starting line without a hiccup, he is by far the most likely winner. If I was picking holes - or trying to, at least - you could argue his rider asked for a very bold leap at the last in the Christmas Hurdle, a risky tactic. The converse is that the horse responded gamely and cruised away from standing dish, The New One.

It is probably unfair to measure Nicky Henderson's hotpot by the horses in his immediate aftermath - you can only beat what shows up, after all. And B d'Air has mocked not just The New One but also My Tent Or Yours (twice) and Irving in four back-to-back Grade 1 wins. That trio are all card-carrying veterans and are surely susceptible to a younger, more upwardly mobile racer albeit that such a type would be mobilizing from a lower ability base.

I want to be against Faugheen. Another of the double-digit brigade, he's been seen on the track just twice in the last two years, most recently when pulling up for no obvious reason. True, prior to that he hinted at the retention of the terrific talent he formerly possessed; but that was in duffing up a couple of 155 horses, both of whose marks may be considered slightly dubious at that level.

He just has a heck of a lot to prove, and at a top price of 5/1 is no value to do so. It would be genuinely fantastic to see him back to his best but it is very hard to imagine that he's a tight single figure chance of winning the Champion Hurdle in two months time. 3/1 NRNB could be excusable, depending on what shows up for the Leopardstown race. If it's a decent field and Faugheen wins, he'll be shorter and deservedly so. If he gets beaten, that will very likely be that and money back. Although it's hardly romantic, I fear the latter outcome. Either way, he's too risky a proposition at the price at this stage.

A couple of Mullins subs are next in the market. Melon is a weird one. I can only imagine he works like an absolute tank at home, because his form simply does nothing to vindicate a quote of 8/1 best. The only race he's won since a maiden hurdle this time last year was a weak Grade 2 at Down Royal, where he was roughly the same distance in front of Coquin Mans as Jezki was the time before. And he was in receipt of three pounds!

In three defeats around that hollow triumph he's run behind Labaik, Cilaos Emery and My Tent Or Yours (and The New One). I genuinely honestly for the life of me cannot fathom how that is possibly the profile of a single figure chance in a Champion Hurdle, even as shallow a heat as this looks.

If he dots up, fair enough, but it would have to be a major step forward from a rating of 159, which looks generous already.

More interesting, much more interesting, is Yorkhill. 12/1 in the all in run or not books, he's as short as 4/1 NRNB. That differential is explained by the fact he's been chasing for the last season and a bit. As unconvincing over a fence as he can be, he's still managed to win the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival and, before that, the Neptune at the previous year's Festival.

If Faugheen was withdrawn from consideration, Yorkhill is a rock solid deputy, assuming he can still make a hurdling shape. Actually, thinking about it, that's what he's done over plenty of the steeplechase fences he's traversed! Again here, NRNB is the only route in. 5/1 with that money back concession is as close to an each way bet to nothing as is conceivable. Unsexy in the extreme, and probably the sort of play that gets your account restricted, it is very difficult to see him out of the frame if he turns up. But do not be suckered into the 12/1 on offer. He's more likely than not to run in a different race: 12/1 on an un-refunded non-runner won't get the pulse racing!

My Tent Or Yours is 16/1, 12/1 NRNB, and to be honest that's fair enough. Now eleven, he can't possibly win the race, but it's such a weak field that he could sneak into the frame. His form is closely tied in with The New One, another whose overall profile is the same: cannot win, probably runs with merit in defeat. Nigel Twiston-Davies' unfairly maligned warrior - he is a millionaire, after all - may take a different path this term in any case.

A horse I took a punt on in the early part of the season, before he flunked badly, was Defi De Seuil. He was the lad whose form lines were not already demonstrably below those of Buveur D'Air, and who could have conceivably developed into a genuine contender. But then he ran as flat as a pancake on his first and only run so far this season. Very little has come to light since, except the poor form of the Philip Hobbs yard during that part of the season.

He'd probably need to win the Irish Champion Hurdle to book his Chelto ticket and, assuming Buveur D'Air no shows, he has his chance. I've not given up all hope yet. Just most of it!

Wicklow Brave was only seventh in last year's Champion and has been globetrotting on the flat largely since, though his final hurdle run was a defeat of My Tent Or Yours in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle last April. He won't be winning at Cheltenham first time up though, and hasn't got any entries at this stage.

Min is quite interesting. As big a Supreme hype horse as Melon a year before, he ran a better race than that one to split the peerless Altior and Buveur D'air. He's won three of his four chase starts since then, but it was a big shock when he got turned over by Simply Ned at Leopardstown at Christmas. In the same ownership as Faugheen, he's another Mullins horse that could be diverted to this race. As such, he's another where the 16/1 NRNB is disproportionately more attractive than the 25/1 all in quote. After all, he's one of only two horses to beat Buveur D'Air. Moreover, the reverting from fences to hurdles route has been taken by both Rock On Ruby and Buveur D'Air himself since 2012.

Apple's Jade would be interesting if she came this route, but is far more likely for the Mares' Hurdle; Mick Jazz was the main beneficiary of Faugheen's flop last time but his overall form isn't in the same parish; Ch'Tibello wasn't too far behind My Tent but gets a bit outpaced on quicker ground; and before you know it, it's 50/1 your choice.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Tips

There are still a number of trials to be run, time enough for horses to shine a light on their credentials. But, as things stand, it is very (very!) hard to see past BUVEUR D'AIR. I can also confirm that night should follow day later, and that it will be February after January... So far, so bleedin' obvious.

Where, then, is the leftfield play? Well, this looks a superb 'without the favourite' race, and I'll be paying close heed to that market when it's eventually priced up. For now, however, we can do no better than muck about with the the Non Runner No Bet concessions.

In that context, Yorkhill is bombproof each way. He is unlikely to show up here if either Faugheen or Min do, in which case it's cash back in time for some 'without the fav' action. In the same vein, Min looks over-priced NRNB. Again, the likelihood is that we'll merely get our quids back; but, should he get the go ahead, he'll surely be a single figure price on the day.

Most likely winner (by a country mile) -

Buveur D'Air 8/13 NRNB Skybet

Best NRNB each way alternatives -

Yorkhill 5/1, Min 16/1 both Skybet (1/5 1-2-3)