Is racing a team sport? That’s the question that lies at the heart of any discussion on the rights and wrongs of pacemaking, writes Tony Keenan. The instinctive answer is no. Take a hypothetical horse race: ten runners each with a different trainer, owner and jockey, each wanting to win at the expense of the others. Tactics play their part in this imaginary race but team tactics shouldn’t as there are no teams as such, only individual concerns.
Obviously this simplistic argument is complicated by the presence of multiple horses trained and/or owned by the same person or group of people. In some of these cases, particularly in Group 1 races, we see jockeys using their horses as part of the team and expend their mounts to facilitate a stablemate, often one with a bigger profile or shorter price. Some would argue this is simply the nature of team sport; in any team, different players play different roles and not everyone can score the winning goal with some needing to contribute to the build-up in the hope there will be enough reflected glory to go around.
This would be fine in racing apart from one obvious problem: it is essentially forbidden by the rules. Consider the Turf Club’s Rule 212 (a)
every horse which runs in a race shall be run on its merits and its subsection (i) the rider of every horse shall take all reasonable and permissible measures throughout the race to ensure that his horse is given a full opportunity to win or of obtaining the best possible place.
Horses that are ridden to cater for another runner in the field are bending if not breaking these rules which is not the same as to say that they cannot win. Indeed, horses that are ridden with something other their own winning chance in mind will often come home in front but that doesn’t mean that the intent (or lack thereof) wasn’t there. Proving that intent is tricky if not impossible but all this does highlight a strange blind-spot for the sport; we talk about how a certain ownership cohort may attempt to scheme out a race beforehand and perhaps even praise them afterwards for a well-executed plan. I’ve done it myself but it is difficult to get away from the view that such an approach contravenes the rules.
Advocates of pacemaking will point to its chief benefit: a pacemaker ensures a fair and even pace where the best horse will win more often than not. This is a hollow sentiment and there are many examples of this not being the case. Take Churchill’s 2,000 Guineas in May, where his stablemate Lancaster Bomber set a steady gallop that would suit a horse who showed plenty of speed at two and work against the likes of Barney Roy and Al Wukair who wanted a stamina test at the trip. Regardless of your views on the relative merits of those three horses and their subsequent achievements, the Timeform sectional database suggests that the second and third were better on the day due to how fast they finished. Perhaps Churchill would have pulled out more – his style of running suggests as much – but I prefer to put my faith in the physics rather than the perception of idling.
At the other end of the pace spectrum is the overly-strong gallop and the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot is a reasonable if not perfect example. Harry Angel was forced to go a little faster than ideal in front with Intelligence Cross pressuring him (the sectionals suggest Intelligence Cross raced very inefficiently) which set things up for the closing Caravaggio who wanted a well-run race. That Intelligence Cross was spoiling Harry Angel and getting him racing a little keenly is another issue and the whole idea of manufacturing trouble and pacemakers dropping back to create lanes for stablemates coming through the pack is another grey area worth exploring.
A huge feature of jockey skill is in predicting how a race will be run; riders must be aware of how to ride the race as well as their horse and not be hidebound to the same tactics each day. The likes of Frankie Dettori have been roundly praised for setting his own pace in races where nothing else wants to go on but some of this skill is taken out of the equation when a percentage of the jockeys have a good idea about how the race will be run. This confers a massive advantage such as in the 2016 Epsom Derby when Ryan Moore on US Army Ranger was aware that Port Douglas was going to set fierce fractions and he could sit out the back and come late. This helped produce a clear career-best effort for his mount where Pat Smullen on the winner, Harzand, could only guess at what the pace might be.
Knowing the plan, and the plan working out, are of course two different things and often the internal chaos of a race will kick in and blow any predetermined approach apart; perhaps the intended frontrunner fluffs the start or maybe a really free-going sort tanks itself to the lead. We shouldn’t judge the issue on exceptional cases however and it is hard to argue that over time, broadly knowing how a race will be run is a huge edge for some riders and connections.
I realise all of this sounds horribly anti-Coolmore and Ballydoyle but that is not the intention; they are merely playing within the rules as currently applied and it is hard to fault them for that. Clearly the prime exponents of constructing a suitable pace (this might be a better way of describing it than ‘pacemaking’), they are not to be blamed as much as the authorities. As I wrote a few weeks back, the influence that Coolmore exert in Irish group races is growing all the time with their percentage of runners on the rise in recent seasons so we can expect to see even more of this in the near-future. There was even a Leopardstown maiden back in July where the pace was seemingly set to advantage their Coat Of Arms though he was ultimately unable to deliver!
As for solutions to this, I don’t really have any though less lionising of such team tactics might be a good place to start. No more than proving a non-trier, proving an attempt to choreograph a race is difficult for all that it may be obvious to onlookers. That is assuming a will to even go down that legislative route which seems unlikely in an Irish context; the Coolmore lobby in Ireland is powerful, prepotent even, and they are the ones that benefit most from the status quo. And even if trainers were asked to answer a case, they could argue – rightly – that their horse is simply a natural front-runner where the jockey got the fractions wrong or that a change in tactics was in order to spark an out of form animal. Unsatisfactory, that is for sure.