Kevin Blake

    In his latest column Kevin looks at the Turf Club’s new non-trier rules and says they could be a watershed moment for the integrity of Irish racing.
  • Monday 16 January 2017
  • Blog

New non-trier rules have to be a game changer for Irish racing integrity

Last week the Turf Club revealed their long-awaited revisions to the non-trier rules for Irish racing, with their CEO Denis Egan billing them as “the most complete running and riding regulations in any jurisdiction.”

The shortcomings of the existing non-trier rules in Ireland have been showcased on the most prominent of stages in the last year. The Turf Club stewards pursued the Noble Emperor and Pyromaniac cases with the greatest of vigour, but ultimately didn’t get the result they sought and the connections of those horses eventually had their punishments quashed.

It was in the aftermath of the Noble Emperor case that the Turf Club announced the review of their non-trier rules which led to last week’s announcement. The existing rules were considered unsuitable for the task of enforcing the integrity of Irish racing, with low-level and high-level cases all coming under the one rather vague rule.

Indeed, the rule was open to so much interpretation that it made it difficult for rulings made by the raceday stewards to stand up to scrutiny by even the Turf Club Appeals Body, never mind legal challenge in the law courts. This is very clearly illustrated by the eye-opening statistic that of the punishments dished out by raceday stewards that were appealed in 2014 and 2015, 61% of them resulted in a quashing or reduction of the original punishment.

When one reads through the new rule, the first impression one gets is that they certainly couldn’t be accused of lacking in thoroughness. The old Rule 212 was just over 200 words in length, but the updated rule is made up of just shy of 1,400 words. There is plenty to digest in amongst the new content and you can read the full rule here, but the introduction offers a succinct summary of what is laid out within:

“Having regard to the importance, for the health (including financial health) of the sport and industry of racing and breeding, of each horse competing in each race being seen to have been given a full opportunity of obtaining the best possible place there is an overall obligation on all persons who have any involvement with the running and riding of a horse in a race to ensure that the horse concerned runs on its merits and is also seen, to a reasonable and informed member of the racing public, to have been run on its merits."

In that context it is the obligation of all such persons to ensure that the racecourse is not used as a training ground and that all horses, including horses having their first run, must be ridden to attain the best possible place and must not be deliberately eased before passing the winning post without good reason.”

Essentially, the rule is now divided into three sections. The first deals with running-and-riding offences and is sub-divided into five individual parts, covering everything from an out-and-out deliberate stopping job to the negligent misjudgement of the winning post and everything in between.

Just as interesting is the second section of the new rule which relates to “improvement in form.” Significantly, this gives the stewards the provision to not just examine the run that has just occurred, but to examine the previous runs of the horse in question too.

There are plenty of points of interest in the final section of the rule too, with perhaps the details of how veterinary evidence will be dealt with being the most significant additions, given that new veterinary evidence being introduced at appeals has resulted in a number of high-profile verdicts being quashed in recent times.

There is also a new provision which allows the Referrals Committee or Appeals Body to consider breaches of rules other than the one that initiated the hearing, which closes the loophole that led to the Pyromaniac case being settled without punishment for his connections.

The potential punishments for breaches of this rule have also been increased, with the maximum fine rising from €6,000 to €10,000 and the maximum suspension allowed to be given to a horse increasing from 60 days to 90 days.

Now that the Turf Club will be equipped with a much more thorough rule to work with from January 20th onwards, it is essential for the future prosperity of Irish racing that they use its introduction as a watershed moment in the policing of Irish racing.

While many may wish to ignore or downplay it, it is very clear to anyone that follows Irish racing that it has a serious image problem with regard to integrity. Whether one talks to the domestic-based racing public/professionals or to outside observers, many view Irish racing with a fundamental scepticism and perception of deception.

This has been fuelled by what is perceived to be widespread failure of raceday stewards to effectively police the sport. Indeed, while the full integrity statistics for 2016 have not yet been made available, the numbers from 2015 clearly exhibit the problem.

From the just over 27,000 individual runs by horses in Irish racing in 2015, only 27 running-and-riding enquiries were called resulting in one ban that wasn’t reduced or quashed on appeal. Anyone that watches Irish racing, particularly National Hunt racing, knows there are far bigger issues with the integrity of Irish racing than these numbers suggest.

As well as there being a fundamental lack of vigour in pursuing non-triers, it is also clear that far too much goes officially unquestioned in Irish racing, be it below-expectation runs from horses that are prominent in the market or jockeys not exerting maximum pressure on horses that are still in with a chance.

All of this can only serve to reduce confidence in the integrity of the sport, resulting in reduced betting turnover and acting as a deterrent to ownership amongst other things.

However, this rule change offers the Turf Club the opportunity to leave the errors and inactivity of the past behind them and begin to undo the damage that has been done to Irish racing’s reputation in recent decades. Now that they are finally armed with the means to effectively police the sport, it is absolutely crucial that the raceday stewards are more active in their day-to-day policing of the sport.

Right now, for a jockey or trainer to be called into a running-and-riding enquiry is so rare that it is seen as an immediate stain on their character just to be officially questioned by the stewards. These new rules must herald a new beginning for Irish stewarding in that such questioning becomes the routine rather than the exception.

The stewards must be far more vigilant and probing than they have ever been, pursuing wrongdoers with an unrelenting consistency at every track and not being afraid to go after rule breakers no matter how high or low their profile. Even in cases where there is no great suspicion of skulduggery, if there are genuine excuses for poor runs or rides that seemed odd, they need to be established by questions posed by the stewards and put on the public record.

While there is no doubt that the revised Rule 212 is a vast improvement, the main question that remains is whether the predominantly amateur Turf Club stewards that are entrusted to enforce it have the will, expertise or time to do it to the standard required.

Raceday stewards have more duties than many realise and it is perhaps an unfair expectation of them to police the sport to the highest standard in the very limited timeframe that they have during the course of a race meeting.

This is why I have previously proposed that the raceday stewards should refer any matters of potential rule breaches to the Referrals Committee to be dealt with at a later date when everyone involved has had enough time to review the available evidence and make the right decision in each case. It would certainly appeal as being a step in the right direction if this became the norm rather than the exception.
 
Supporters of Irish racing can only hope that 2017 will prove to be the year that the Turf Club started to go about policing the sport with a vigour that befits a jurisdiction that has aspirations to be considered the best in the world.

Whether this transpires remains to be seen, but at least they can now do the job they are supposed to do without nearly as much fear of their decisions being undermined by appeals and legal challenges.

Will 2017 represent a new dawn in the integrity of Irish racing? Only time will tell.

Lack of Turf Club communication continues to baffle

While on the subject of the Turf Club, the time has surely come for them to move into the 21st century in how it communicates with the racing world? Twitter has become a huge part of the horse racing landscape and it is the perfect tool for information such as non-runners and the findings of enquiries to be distributed to the racing public in real time, yet it remains unutilised by the Turf Club.

The problem of lack of communication of important information such as non-runners was illustrated by the U S Navy Seal debacle earlier this month. That could have been prevented had the Turf Club non-runner feed been synched to post the information on Twitter at the same time it was posted on the Turf Club website.

While the Turf Club have a Twitter account, it has remained private and unused since its creation in January 2013. This really is a ridiculous situation in this day and age and should be remedied as soon as possible.

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