Aidan O'Brien targets more Irish Champions Weekend success for Ballydoyle

The Ethics of Pacemaking

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.

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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.

- TK

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6 replies
  1. d says:

    when they collapsed the pace on Dawn approach in the Derby @ epsom
    “a pacemaker ensures a fair and even pace” it showed O Brien & Coolmore had zero integrity
    ɪnˈtɛɡrɪti/
    noun
    1.
    the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.

    Reply
  2. Tim Spring says:

    Another interesting topic well discussed – thank you. Most racegoers are aware of this but accept the status quo because it seems little can be done and smaller yards must grit their teeth and take it. There was a stewards enquiry following one race where the pacemaker on the rail moved out at the two furlong pole to allow his closely following stablemate to go through the gap and win. Nothing against the rules but clearly the rider knew his colleague was just behind him and was in the best position to make full use his manoeuvre to pass by on the inside to win. In the end those with the resources, and the horses, will benefit over the rest.

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  3. tom w says:

    Pace is an integral handicapping factor in all races. True pace is difficult to predict in most races where the running history of a horse isn’t readily available. In the US the past performances used provide a more in depth view, with positions, times and lengths at key race points, something that is missing in most UK, Irish and Australian editions provided (that I have found so far).
    While having the information is key, ferreting out the intent of the trainer is yet another “skill”.
    The assumption has typically been that if the horse is entered the intent is to win. Of course there are obvious instances where the vast majority of the betting public and most likely the trainer as well know that the horse has no chance of winning, yet it is entered in the hopes of bringing home only part of a purse.
    What it comes down to is that if a horse is qualified under the conditions it can be allowed to run and it is up to the wagering public to put their confidence where they see fit, which is why there isn’t a steady stream of short priced favorites every race every day.
    So if you see a pace discrepancy that few others do, which puts you on a 20 or 30 to 1 priced bomber, are you going to look that gift horse in the mouth?

    Reply
    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Tom

      Thanks for your comment. Just to say that this site’s past performances include pace maps for today’s race. But yes, you’re right, it is relatively uncommon in Britain bizarrely.

      Matt

      Reply
  4. mick says:

    A tough one all right.

    My own gut call is that racing should not be a “team sport”.
    A horse race should determine the best horse.

    Team sports classily have equal teams.
    A scenario where one team had five members and
    the others are sole individuals is not a fair and level
    base playing field.

    Permitting multiple team entrants to compete against individuals
    would be more fair if all team entrants were indeed acting as individuals.

    It is when they start to gang up, collude and act as a team that issues arise.

    An obvious issue is how does one with great accuracy measure
    the intent of a team to act as a team or to act as sole individuals.

    If one deems it close to impossible to measure accurately
    then the revolutionary answer may be to block in future multiple entries.

    But even that is not straightforward.

    If one for example had a one trainer one runner rule
    that could still be abused with an individual owner
    of several team horses organising his trainers
    to act as a team.

    Would one have to go one owner one runner for any individual race?

    Is that then even open to abuse?

    Picture two syndicates who each share the same 90% shareholder.
    Is that one owner..or two?

    Such thinking would be very big change and only ever likely if
    the racing authorities put at utmost top priority the outward perception
    of 100% fair and honest racing.

    It would cause huge uproar amongst the big trainers and the big owners.
    They of course are the ones who perhaps benefit most from the status quo.
    The ability to instruct team orders gives them advantage over sole runners.

    Ponder as well how one trainer one runner or one owner one runner rules
    could future impact the sport.

    Would the world evolve more slightly towards better
    horses getting spread around more stables?

    Would it reduce the danger of individual power owners
    hoarding all the best horses for themselves?

    Would those two things be bad for
    the sport long term if they came to pass?
    If licenced trainers voted in democratic one vote per trainer fashion
    should they / would they vote for something that may result in less concentration
    of good horses in a few dominant top yards ?

    Certainly more questions than answers in my own head.

    A lot of things would depend on exactly how high up the scale
    the racing authorities place the importance of each horse
    on it’s own merits racing.

    When money bags owner comes to them and says

    I want to use my excessive wealth to buy up multiple top horses
    then race them as a team that will collude against the individual
    other competitors. I want my cash to buy me unfair advantage
    in individual races over lesser people.

    Do the racing authorities say to said owner.
    “Welcome in your cash pile looks very good to us.”

    Or do they turn the job funding cash away with a strong ethical stance?

    Cheers
    Mick

    PS A close to the remain at status quo style thing might
    be a trainer / owner signed declaration of no team collusion
    certificate that has to be submitted in any race where it is appropriate.
    Clear cut guides as to what is collusive / unfair team behaviour should be available.

    A somewhat pointless piece of paper this certificate may be.
    But the racing authorities could point at it’s existence as
    themselves putting high regard for such stuff.
    Some judge it more important to be seen to be doing something
    rather than to be actually doing something 🙂

    Trainers would also be regularly reminded by having to sign it regularly.

    Clear cut significant penalties for breach of it would also be
    regularly seen by Trainers assuming possibly penalty
    risk was highlighted on the form.

    Trainers may become semi police men of the rules
    regularly highlighting to owners risk of breach etc.

    Just a brain storm idea slightly less revolutionary than 1 trainer 1 horse.

    Reply
  5. Kemal Tayib says:

    I must admit I’m heartily sick of seeing Coolmore mob handed in the group races! Could there not be a rule only allowing the same owner two horses in each race? I know Mc Manus and Gigginstown have a lot in each race too although most of those are handicaps to be fair. Allowing the big battalions to have multiple entries stops the smaller owners entering as they know their chances of even some prize money are limited.

    Reply

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