Acapella Bourgeois and the clear leader conundrum
It doesn’t take much to drive the average racing fan/punter to frustration and one source of aggravation that pops up from time to time is the scenario where one horse tears off into a clear lead and doesn’t come back to the field.
Of course, many times the leader will weaken badly and finish well beaten, but occasionally they will maintain their gallop to win, usually with the riders in behind getting widespread abuse for delaying their pursuit of the clear leader.
This proved to be the case in the Grade 2 Ten Up Novice Chase at Navan on Sunday, with the Sandra Hughes-trained ACAPELLA BOURGEOIS building up a huge lead over his seven rivals and never looking in any danger of being troubled, with him eventually prevailing by 32 lengths under Roger Loughran. The race split opinion on the racecourse and on social media between those that lauded the performance of the winner and those that felt he had essentially been handed the race by the tactical ineptness of the other riders in the race.
It must be said, cases such as this are rare in Ireland. There was an element of it in the infamous Noble Emperor case at Limerick last year which resulted in Barry Geraghty getting a 30-day ban that was subsequently quashed on appeal, but perhaps a more comparable example was that of Writers Block in a maiden confined to amateur riders at Leopardstown in 2013. The moderate point-to-pointer was sent off at 50/1 and was ignored by the rest of the field as he built up a substantial lead early in the race. While the other five riders eventually tried to give chase, it was too late and he prevailed by a margin of 14 lengths, with the other riders subsequently all incurring four-day bans for failing to make every effort to obtain their best possible placing.
However, Sunday’s case was very different to the Writers Block race. Analysis of the fence-by-fence times clearly show that Acapella Bourgeois steadily built up his advantage over his rivals from the first fence all the way to the finish line. Indeed, he was further in front of his nearest pursuer at the finish line than he had been at any point of the race.
If the other riders had made a tactical misjudgement in allowing him to build this lead, they would have been expected to be able to close on him in the latter stages. That they couldn’t close and indeed were still losing ground on him at the finish line suggests that the result of this race was more so a reflection of Acapella Bourgeois’s performance than it was of any notable tactical misjudgement by the other riders in the race. It seems that their mounts simply could not cope with what was a fine performance of galloping, jumping and stamina by the winner in what were testing ground conditions.
That said, while it is my opinion that the riders in behind the winner didn’t do anything notably wrong, that doesn’t mean I agree with the decision of the stewards not to hold an official inquiry. As has been discussed in this space on multiple occasions in recent months, perception is everything when it comes to the integrity of horse racing. Given that the rules state that the stewards must ensure that every horse “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”, cases such as this that divide the opinion of the racing public should be the subject of inquiries so that everyone involved has the opportunity to put their explanations and thoughts on the record for all to see.
While the failure to call an official inquiry was perhaps disappointing, that the stewards’ secretary Hugh Hynes was willing to comment to the press to explain the stewards’ view of the race and why no official inquiry was called was a welcome footnote to the case. In Great Britain it isn’t uncommon for a representative of the stewards to be interviewed on one of the racing channels in the aftermath of a controversial decision to explain their thought processes, but this is far less common in Irish racing. It would only be a good thing if such interaction between officials and the media became the norm rather than the exception.
On a related note, just over a month has passed since the implementation of the much publicised new non-trier rules in Irish racing and that month has produced a mixed bag of results. On the positive side, at least from the point of view of Turf Club regulation, the rules survived their first test by an appeal in the case of the non-trier ban handed out to the connections of the Ellmarie Holden-trained Look Closer at Fairyhouse earlier this month.
There was some controversy that the punishments were upheld given that the horse was found to be lame behind by the Turf Club veterinary officer after the race and was even lamer when examined at the Troytown Hospital later that evening and again the morning after. However, given that Rachael Blackmore didn’t make any mention of her feeling anything even slightly amiss with the horse in physical terms in the initial inquiry, it seems perfectly sensible to me that the subsequent veterinary evidence was deemed irrelevant in the judgement of her ride.
Remarkably, this was the first running-and-riding ban dished out by Irish racecourse stewards that wasn’t quashed or reduced on appeal since the case of Hunters Of Acres at Tipperary in May 2015 which incidentally wasn’t appealed by the punished connections.
On the negative side, it has been disappointing not to see a significantly greater volume of running-and-riding inquiries in the month since the new rules have been in place. Anecdotally, there does seem to be more of them taking place, but there are still plenty of rides going officially unquestioned that really should be questioned.
While it is only fair to give the stewards time to adjust to the new rules before judging how well or otherwise they are working, if the hope that the new non-trier rules will prove to be a watershed moment for the integrity of Irish racing is to come to fruition, the stewards simply have to get more active in their enforcement of those rules.