Galway rarely goes off without some sort of controversy and this year it was Ballycasey being declared a non-runner in the Plate, a decision which facilitated his stablemate and ante-post favourite, Patricks Park, getting into a race where he ultimately finished second, writes Tony Keenan. A high-profile withdrawal like this always brings the reserve system and its flaws/benefits into focus as does the Galway meeting generally; this is a fixture where everyone wants a runner and reserves are declared with the intent to run much more so than other times of the year. Per Horse Racing Ireland, there have been 136 reserves that have run in Ireland thus far in 2018 with an amazing 26 of them at Galway last week; one won, Rovetta first time round last Wednesday, though four (Davids Charm, Andratx, Bubbly Bellini and Athenry Boy) were successful at the meeting in 2017.
The reserve system is run by the IHRB rather than HRI and works as follows : trainers are typically required to confirm their non-runner by phone which opens at 9am on the day of the race; they can do this any time up to ninety minutes before the off of the first race. Per the IHRB, ‘where a trainer knows sufficiently early that a horse trained by him will not be a runner in a race in which reserves have been listed, he should take steps to so inform the trainers of any horses listed as reserves.’ After this, it is up to the trainer of the reserve to contact the non-runner line to confirm their participation. The opening hours of the phone line is the first issue here; if it only opens at 9am on the day of the race, there are 22 and half hours of dead time from declaration stage at 10.30am the previous day, or more in case of 48-hour declarations which is every Sunday in Ireland, where a trainer can do little. That it is only a phone number they can contact is backward too; perhaps it should be done via the online entry system all trainers use. At the other extreme, if someone is only declaring their non-participation the official 90 minutes before the first then the trainers of the reserves in most cases will get no opportunity to run; if the meeting is at Down Royal and your yard is in Tipperary then an hour and half notice is nowhere near enough. Few, if any, trainers are going to travel their horse with cost and hassle to have to turn around and come home without a run unless it is a meeting like Galway.
Then there are concerns about how well protocol is being followed, again to quote the IHRB: ‘trainers [are notified] that proper use of the reserve system can only be achieved with their full co-operation.’ Let’s take a situation where trainer A has a horse that is being declared a non-runner but he doesn’t get on with trainer B who has the first reserve; does he really want to help trainer B out? Furthermore, let’s say trainer X (or owner Y) has five runners in the race, hardly an outlandish situation in Irish national hunt racing currently, and one of theirs is coming out. Do they really want to let a reserve in at the bottom that could potentially be a danger to their other four runners or are they happy to let the field go to post less one runner? Perhaps they would hold off until the last possible moment to declare their non-participation. Protocol and etiquette may be one thing but the reality looks somewhat different.
Does this etiquette change with big yards and owners? When interviewed last Tuesday about the possibility of Patricks Park getting into the Plate, Willie Mullins commented that he would be the last to know if another yard was going to have a non-runner in the race. Perhaps this is a case of other, smaller yards maintaining some competitive advantage over the superpowers, minimal though it may be. The big operations have all sorts of other advantages, their multiple runners allowing them to control the pace and shape of races and they also have the facility to run horses that may not be ideally suited by race conditions in order to keep potentially dangerous rivals out of the field, a tactic used by Gordon Elliott in both the 2017 Thyestes and Irish Grand National. The Galway Hurdle saw JP McManus run nine horses, four of which finished in the last five when the likes of On The Go Again and Top Othe Ra (who fought out the finish of a race the following evening) just missed the cut.
For big trainers to contr0l the shape of the race they need co-operative owners who are willing to have their horses run in sub-optimal conditions for the greater good of the yard. We saw in the recent Tim Brennan BHA case that Willie Mullins makes basically all the decisions around the running of his horses though this was hardly in much doubt judging on the past few seasons. Perhaps Rich Ricci was devastated when Ballycasey was taken out of the Plate last Wednesday but I suspect he was hardly bothered by an out-of-form 33/1 shot coming out when his trainer had landed the Galway Mile for him with Riven Light and gotten Limini back to the track the previous two evenings. Taking one for the team has long been a feature of being an owner at Closutton which might be why Michael O’Leary no longer has horses there.
Objectively, the use of the going as the reason for Ballycasey not running in the Plate rang very hollow. The ground was yielding when he was declared then was changed to good on the morning of the race before extensive rain brought it back to yielding before racing and it may have been softer than that. Still, this was a horse who had put a near career-best on soft-heavy when winning the Normans Grove in April 2017, had done likewise on soft at Killarney the following month, and was being taken out on summer yielding ground. A horse’s going preference may change as time passes but for national hunt racing this was basically no excuses ground. The issue of field size felt similarly weak; the horse had run in the 2016 Grand National, the race that attracts the biggest field in the sport, while he was considered well able to handle the hurly-burly of a 22-runner Plate field just the previous day. Despite this, the stewards did accept these reasons though there is a very rarely-used facility for them not do so in the case of races worth more than €60,000 as the Plate is; in these situations the trainer may be fined ‘not more than 1% of the advertised value’ as happened when Montjeu didn’t pitch up in the 1999 Irish Champion Stakes but ran in the Prix Niel the following day.
Of course, a trainer needs an excuse to take a horse out other than ‘we prefer a better-fancied runner’ and Mullins was doing nothing wrong strictly speaking within the rules; there is a rule where trainers can take a horse out with the ground as an excuse when it changes from declaration time though that was questionable in this case. But it looks like gamesmanship rather than sportsmanship and people generally don’t like to see the powerful throw their weight around like this. Mullins has a ruthless streak and perhaps the Galway Plate prizemoney could be the difference between winning and losing the trainers’ championship come next May but it is not good for the perception of the sport. Furthermore, the trainer’s tone in his comments about the stewards enquiring into why his horse didn’t run were all wrong, saying that ‘I was surprised to be called in and disappointed that we couldn’t take him out here on the track…I don’t understand where racing is going when we just can’t do things like that…When we saw all the rain we wanted to ask them to take him out and they couldn’t so we had to go and ring some central number.’ Aside from Mullins wanting to bypass the system that he and every other trainer uses, he seems to be questioning the right of the stewards to enquire about why his horse was a non-runner when the ground didn’t seem like a viable excuse. Had they not asked those questions, they would not have been doing their job.
All of this could have been avoided had Mullins simply made sure Patricks Park was in the top 20 the previous day when declarations were made as he had five runners in the race at that time; Alelchi Inois (beaten a combined 207 lengths on this two Galway outings this year) was an obvious one that could have run elsewhere. Instead we have a situation where no one knows if the ante-post favourite will get a run but many suspect he will though bizarrely this didn’t negatively impact the take with one major bookmaker; Paddy Power report that the race was in their top ten Irish races bet on to this point in the year in both 2017 and 2018, using volume and bet count as a measure and actually increased year-on-year. But this is hardly the first time a situation like this has unfolded in a feature race; Dun Doire got in the 2006 Thyestes after a non-runner, Beautiful Sound didn’t get into the 2011 Irish National when nothing came out, Carlingford Lough won the 2013 Plate after Like Your Style was taken out under the ‘unsuitable ground’ excuse.
Punters are the obvious losers in all these cases but it is hardly news that Irish racing is not run for them. The only time the reserves system will work in the favour of punters is when a reserve makes a race a full field for each-way betting, boosting a 15-runner field back up to 16. But in all other instances it works against them. There is the obvious confusion around studying form and if you’re a lazy punter like me, you give scant regard to horses’ numbers R21, R22 and R23 when you get that far. That said, I do wonder if odds compilers are similarly lazy in pricing them and make obvious form chance reserves too big and there could be a case for backing such horses, even if it might be a long time between drinks and lots of stakes returned. Further confusion is added by different bookmakers having different terms around reserves and non-runners; some bet without them, some apply rule 4s to them, some do neither. But the biggest problem is a case like last Wednesday’s Plate where the one that gets in has a leading chance and is replacing an outsider, in this case Patricks Park was around 9/2 while Ballycasey was 33/1, a 14% difference in implied probability, and if you placed a bet at early prices you were by definition on at a bad value price. There is almost a case for a reverse Rule 4, difficult though that may be to implement!
The question then comes down to whom the reserve system serves, with owners and trainers being the obvious answer. That is no bad thing with owners pumping so much money into the sport and if they want to have a runner in a certain race they should probably be given every chance to do so. The problem is the whole timing of the non-runner declaration; 90 minutes before the first is far too late and if the system is to work better the cut-off point needs to brought back. In almost all cases, trainers will know early on the morning of the race whether or not their horse is running and it is not unrealistic to have all fields confirmed by 10am for a day meeting or midday for an evening card. At the very least, it should be improved upon for these major races that attract so much attention and betting turnover. What we have now is a system that feels like racing from a bygone era where no one has any clue what is running until you get to the races: that is clearly not fit for purpose.