Barney Curley gets, and gives, a hard time in this infamous interview.

Tony Keenan: The Perception Of Deception

Every sport has stereotypes they would prefer not to have, writes Tony Keenan. Track and field athletes are dopers, footballers are grossly overpaid and horse racing is bent. One can flip these sorts of views around however. The World Athletics Championships at London 2017 were relatively clean by modern standards, the suppressed times and overall unpredictability of results suggesting anti-doping is working to some degree. There is a strong case that rather than footballers being overpaid, their wages are in line with market value and related to massive TV deals, sponsorship and such like. Racing, well we’ll come to that.

There can be little doubt that the general public’s view of racing is a low one. In a recent study by Portland Communications entitled the UK Sports Integrity Index 2017, a survey was carried out on 2,110 people on their views on the most and least trusted sports. Participants were asked to place each sport in terms of four categories: fixing of events, use of performance enhancing drugs, financial corruption and cover-up stories/scandals. Racing came out eleventh of 12 overall sports with only football behind and the sport’s position in each of the categories surveyed were:  fixing (last), PEDs (eighth), financial corruption (second-last) and cover-ups (tenth).

The issue with the general public is that their views are often based on limited knowledge. Racing has a history of being tied to chicanery with the centrality of betting to the sport a massive factor and we probably don’t help ourselves in this regard by lionizing some of the coups that have gone on over time. It’s difficult if not impossible to change these sorts of perceptions in the mainstream as people have neither the time nor the interest to engage with what racing is really like.

I’m less interested in their entrenched opinions than I am in those of the betting public, a group who have at worst a passing knowledge of racing and often possess a passion for the sport. Yet if you ask these people about their views on the integrity of racing – and Irish racing in particular – you often get a particularly negative response. Searching ‘Irish racing’ in Twitter throws up more than its share of vitriol to its participants with the likes of Aidan O’Brien, Ryan Moore, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh routinely described in terms of the lowest cheats. It’s the same should you visit your local betting shop. A large part of me says such people are morons looking to blame someone else for a losing bet but we do risk going the full ostrich here; these are the customers with the betting euro and pound and what they think of the sport does matter, not least because they can choose to bet on something else.

It is important to state now that I believe Irish racing to be straight, by and large; it is a betting product I have faith in and I can’t remember the last time I had a bet in a race and thought there was something rotten about it. I qualify that by saying I do most of my betting and viewing on the middle to upper reaches of the sport but I would be happy to say it has a lot less skulduggery than is widely perceived. Irish racing is regarded as a world leader by many of those who participate in it but there is a huge disconnect between this view and the broader perception of the sport among those that like a bet.

Looking at the broad picture of what punters bet on, it is worth pointing out that Irish racing is a relatively low turnover sport for most operators, particularly those in the online sphere. Certainly it is less popular with bettors than UK racing –the obvious point that there is much more UK racing needs to be made – while other sports are also on the rise with the younger demographic, racing being hard to grasp initially relative to other more straightforward sports. It was interesting to read recently that Horse Racing Ireland wanted betting tax increased in Ireland but they should be careful what they wish for and hope that their return from the tax is not pro-rated to the amount actually bet on the Irish racing; were that to be the case they could be in for a rude awakening.

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This possible lack of faith in Irish racing does not just come from punters however. Paddy Power, the largest of the Irish bookmakers, recently cut back appreciably on their laying of Irish overnight prices in their shops. They now bet only the better class racing where once they would have offered the full menu of the next day’s racing and while many punters will say that overnights are only a cheap way of getting their cards marked, it is worth pointing out that they continue to lay more UK races overnight. It could be argued that this is more to do with the type of business you attract – the person who is betting the previous evening likely has some degree of homework done – than what they are actually betting on but the contrast between their approaches to racing from the two jurisdictions is pointed.

Educating the punters you have on your sport is important to altering this perception of deception and the ultimate responsibility for this has to rest with the governing bodies and authorities. One simple way of improving attitudes would be to get the stewards to ask more questions about horses that perform dismally. Often there are very sensible reasons for underperformance from jockey error to physical issues yet one only hears about these reasons after the horse has bounced back to form next time. The Turf Club website provides these reasons in the post-race reports section of their website but it is all too limited; often you will look at a meeting where only one or two excuses were provided for the whole cohort of horses across a seven-race card. More questions should be asked not only on the day but after the event – often something will come to light in the days that follow – and these responses need to be published in every horse’s form to improve the transparency of the sport.

Prize-money is another important consideration though not at the upper levels. Whether the Irish Champion Stakes is worth €1.25 million or €1 million matters not a jot to the integrity of the race; it is Ireland’s best flat race and everyone wants to win it for the prestige and stallion fees. Race values do matter in the bottom grade and you ideally want a situation where an owner that wins a race, no matter how lowly, will be able to cover training fees for a period of months rather than the winning trip to the races costing them money.

Some will say that such efforts are pointless as you are never going to change people’s views towards a sport because they are too deeply entrenched. While I tend to agree with this in relation to the general public and acknowledge that some will be attracted to racing in the hope of getting the inside scoop on a horse, such complacency can be dangerous. The popularity of sports wane and flow and what obsessed people 20 years ago can now be an irrelevance. Competition for the betting pound and euro is stiff and it is getting stiffer with bookmakers often not helping racing to even maintain its position and the arrival of events such as e-sports as well as ever more markets doesn’t make things easy for racing. How a sport looks from the outside, especially to those a little closer to the centre, will continue to matter.

- Tony Keenan

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12 replies
  1. buckieboy says:

    My knowledge of the Irish turf is limited to gossip but on UK racing I have long been convinced that the daily stewarding of races is derelict. So many questions could be asked about each race, daily; the fact that those questions are never posed leaves room for the wilder allegations, as well as the more acute insight.
    The Bha has at least one eye closed as, unless the stewards act on the day, they regard nothing untoward having happened, in the vast majority of events.
    This case gives a hint:-
    https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2017/aug/11/talking-horses-charlie-mcbride-yarmouth-fine-bha

    Reply
    • Chris Jones says:

      Re: daily stewarding of races is derelict, I would agree with you to some extent on that.

      In the 19:20 at Bangor last week (16th Aug), the odds-on favourite in a two-horse race pulled up 4 fences from home whilst in a clear lead. I was curious as to why the horse had been pulled up but on checking the steward reports for Bangor that day there is absolutely nothing for that race although every other race on the Bangor card had a stewards report.

      Surely when the favourite pulls up whilst in the lead its worthy of a mention?

      (The racing post reports the horse ‘went wrong’).

      Reply
  2. om0202 says:

    I agree with everything you say but I do think we often focus on the wrong end of a race when discussing corruption. Every day well fancied horses lose all chance at the start of a race. Do we have any stats on trainers and jockeys losing races at the start to see if any dodgy patterns emerge?

    Reply
  3. R J says:

    This is a very good article. May I put a couple of thoughts forward?

    The betting public will complain when their chosen horse loses. The race was obviously fixed!

    Personally, I subscribe to a number of tipsters. When they tip a horse on any Irish track, I always stay well clear as most of the time the tip loses.

    However, I am not convinced that Irish racing is dirty, as was my initial perception. It could be reasonably straight. Punters have been known to back the wrong horse quite a lot. It is how Mr Hill became rich.

    Secondly, punters in bookies or online usually have limited information. Two examples that are frequently missing are the going – seriously, my local shop can seldom tell me the going for the next race – and physical appearance.

    A better way to judge if a race, perhaps racing in genaral, is straight might be to look at on course betting success. Looking at a horse in the parade ring before a race is, for me, an essential. You can often see a winner in that ring, favourite or no. That is why TV coverage is important. It is a pity coverage in recent years has been so poor.

    I do not know if on course statistics are publicly available but it could be interesting reading. I just know my strike rate is higher, a lot higher, on track than if I bet using tips and The Racing Post.

    That’s it. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. jamesfeeney says:

    I live in the west of ireland and we have only a few race meetings that are relatively local ( ish ) to me but I know loads of guys who are owners/syndicate owners, small time trainers or have some reasonably insignificant job on a race course on race day, I also know 1 or 2 on-course bookmakers and a retired bookie and every single one of them will tell me that Irish racing is corrupt.
    Like a previous post here, I follow a couple of online tipsters and when they, rarely, give a bet for Ireland, I don’t do it. It never wins and I have told them as much… in advance, not in a state of grieving punter’s hindsight crying out of my wallet. I have two very close friends who have tried national hunt ownership with “top yards” and their experience as a small time owner has been absolutely horrendous. And again this is not talking out of their pocket, although that was a huge grievance too, it’s the way things were done to them and the deception they encountered they couldn’t believe.

    Reply
  5. Philip Clayton says:

    I am a pennies punter of forty years standing who does mathematically stupid bets such as Lucky 15’s and Patents. I do not have the time to make betting pay and I love horseracing. I lose constantly and then, rarely, win big. My biggest ever was £2958.65p for £2.00. If only I could do that once a month I would be happy.

    I am not one to blame jockeys as a matter of course, but I do think most jockeys, bar a tiny number, lose races they should have won and not vice versa. The number of times I have seen jockeys trapped, on well fancied horses, in a 5-6 runner race is unbelievable. So the average punter yells ‘fix’.

    I have also seen so many ‘educational’ rides on debutantes that were well fancied and came nowhere, seen that repeated, and then BAM the horse wins easily at a gambled on price.

    Tipsters offer huge rewards based on either ‘systems’ or ‘inside’ knowledge. The systems are a better bet.

    But it is also well known, or at least it should be, that some of the smaller stables have to land a ‘gamble’, or ‘plot’, or a ‘coup’ in order to stay afloat financially. So there are three perceptions of ‘corruption’: The massively fancied favourite that does not win, almost certainly for not corrupt reasons; the masively priced outsider that does win and was gambled on; the horse that was clearly not ‘ridden’ to achieve the best possible place. By this I do not mean a jockey not hitting a horse, or a jockey not ‘riding’ a horse. It is the half-hearted pushing from the back of the field followed by the ‘shrug’ of the shoulders and letting the horse ‘coast’ home.

    This happens every single day. There is no doubt in my mind the upper echelons of racing are squeaky clean, it is on the bottom rungs that the cheating takes place. It is the same with football: if you want to bet on it then it is clear that the higher you go the less chance of fiddling; it is in the lower leagues that corruption takes place. Ditto horseracing.

    Reply
  6. Kevin Kelly says:

    For a long time I have refused to believe that racing and in particular that Irish racing is bent and will argue with anyone who is willing to listen that there is a lot less racing then in the UK so therefore more competitive, but this particular incident with Charlie McBride has caused me concern, as I have it on pretty good authority that he made £15,000 on this race alone which leads me to believe that it was the intention to deceive the public and racing authorities and the knowledge that he would be fined very little for doing it. Since this happened I’ve been keeping an eye on races more closely and noticed jockeys pump away like they’re trying there best to ride to the finish to no avail and trail off to finish well beaten. I can’t recall the last time I heard of a jockey finishing last or tailed off being called in to explain the finishing position it just seems to be taken on merit that it was the horses fault and it only seems to be horses who win with form figures of 0PPUP00 that the trainer is questioned about it and gives the excuse that some new combination of headgear or step up/down in trip/class has made the difference and not questioned further. Maybe/hopefully this “mistaken identity” will be the start of something resembling a change but i seriously doubt it. Great write up Tony, as always, I look forward to the next one.

    Reply
    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Kevin,

      Whilst I’ve published your interesting comment, some of your statements are a little close to the knuckle. “Good authority” would not stand up in court in a libel case, for example.

      Regarding jockeys explaining poor runs, this happens all the time and can be found here:

      http://www.britishhorseracing.com/race-info/stewards-reports/

      I am, of course, not saying there are no instances of questionable riding and or instructions. It would be naive to think that. But to suggest nothing is being done is simply not true.

      I for one wouldn’t bet on the sport if I thought there was more than a very remote chance I was going to be cheated. That perception is more than factored into the price I’m prepared to take about a horse’s chance.

      Hope that all makes sense, and thanks again for the comment (but please be careful with what you write!)

      Matt

      Reply
  7. Kevin Kelly says:

    Thanks for your reply Matt, and yes my use of “Good authority”, was maybe a little colourful and a little too close to the knuckle but maybe thats whats needed to give the racing industry a kick up the arse that it badly needs (not by my lonely voice but by a more general conversation) and stop treating it’s customers the way it does. I have to disagree with your comments though Matt, I think we are all being cheated because of these “instances of questionable riding and or instructions”. How, as a punter can I tell if connections of a horse I think can win a race are going to instruct a jockey to hold it up and not be too hard on it so it can “have it’s day” in a more suitable race? There is no way to tell unless I’m close to or part of those connections. We all know this goes on, and it just seems to be the lowly punter who takes the hit on it not the connections of the horse.

    And as for the stewards report, well maybe I’ll be very careful what I write!!! Just a quick glance through it, James Bowen gets a 7 DAY SUSPENSION for improper riding. Yes it was in a hands and heels race but what does that teach a young apprentice rider learning the game to be punished so heavily? Surely it’s about educating him instead of stopping him riding for a week!! And Argenterie ( i must admit this is my pocket talking ) jockey Martin Dwyer reported that the filly lost action. The Veterinary Officer reported that a post-race examination of ARGENTERIE failed to reveal any abnormalities. And that’s it!!! As a punter who had money on it I feel cheated.

    Maybe I should stop there in case I get myself or you Matt, in trouble.

    Yours frustratingly
    Kevin

    Reply
  8. R J says:

    Well, well. I was thinking about this article and its comments after seeing what went on at the 2.50 at Windsot today, the 4th of September. The field dropped to 7 runners. Three non-runners today. Should that not get some official thinking there could be something fishy?

    The best horse did not come first. I can almost hear the justifications. The ground, the trip, the handicap, etc.. I watched the race. I was not impressed.

    Reply
    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi RJ

      I don’t think there was anything wrong there at all. If you want to find ‘issues’, there will be things every day that conspiracy theorists can entertain themselves with. There was plenty of rain on that day, plenty of non-runners, and it was no different from any other day when that sort of thing happens.

      I’m not saying there is never a reason to question, merely that there is generally not. I tend not to buy into the 8 down to 7, 16 down to 15, revised place conspiracies. Just my opinion.

      Matt

      Reply
      • R J says:

        Hello Matt.
        Fair enough. I also believe the well being of the horse is paramount. If the course is unsuitable for the horse, the trainer is right to withdraw the horse. Point taken.

        RJ.

        Reply

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