Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake applauds the decision to bring day one of Irish Champions Weekend forward to Saturday afternoon and highlights the shortcomings of the Whip rules in Ireland.

  • Tuesday 03 September
  • Blog
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Leopardstown and HRI make difficult choice with Irish Champions Weekend switch

Leopardstown, HRI and Irish racing as a whole was dealt an unfortunate hand by the drama in the All-Ireland Football Final at Croke Park last Sunday. The draw has resulted in the replay being scheduled to begin at 18:00 on Saturday September 14th, which would have clashed directly with the Irish Champion Stakes which was due to take place at 18:35.

All involved faced what must have been a tough decision whether to leave Leopardstown’s schedule as it was or to adjust to the changing circumstances. As is always the case with these things, it is never a simple choice. Moving the action at Leopardstown to an earlier start would not only require a great amount of adjustment from Leopardstown, HRI and broadcaster’s perspectives, but it would also lead to it clashing with the St Leger Festival at Doncaster.

This clash would prevent high-profile jockeys and connections from attending both meetings as has been the case in recent years, creating jockey difficulties for the bigger operations that will have runners at both meetings and diluting the star power at one or both of the meetings.

To the credit of all concerned, they didn’t leave us waiting long. It was announced on Monday afternoon that the Leopardstown card would indeed start at the earlier time of 13:55 rather than 15:05, with the Irish Champion Stakes being run at 16:15 and the Matron Stakes at 17:25.

As well as avoiding a clash with the All-Ireland Final, this move will also suit the international audience in Japan that will be tuning in to watch Deirdre represent their nation in the Irish Champion Stakes. The race will now be broadcast live in Japan at 00:15 local time rather than 01:35.

While it must have been galling for HRI and Leopardstown to make what won’t be a universally popular decision within the sport due to the short-notice move of another sporting event into their slot, on balance it appeals as being the right decision in terms of the greater good for Irish racing.

Last Sunday the All-Ireland Final had an average of 968,700 viewers on RTE, which equates to 76.5% of the audience watching television in Ireland at the time, in addition to 161,000 people live streaming the match on RTE Player. There is no point in going head-to-head with a domestic sporting event as big as that, as there will only be one winner.

Terrestrial television coverage remains a hugely-important marketing tool for horse racing in Ireland. Irish Champions Weekend is one of the main showcases of the year for the sport in Ireland and it makes sense to move it to a position to give it the best chance of being in front of as many eyes as possible. Ultimately, while attendance figures are the numbers that tend to be bandied about as a measure of success after these high-profile meetings, in my opinion it is the viewing figures across both terrestrial television, specialist racing channels and online streams that are a much better reflection of engagement in the modern world.

For those that do choose to attend at Leopardstown, the fact that the match starts when it does will serve to provide some excellent post-race entertainment. Leopardstown are planning to lean into this by ensuring coverage of the match on all available screens at the track. On the occasions that Six Nations rugby matches have coincided with the Dublin Racing Festival in recent years it has actually led to a very lively post-race atmosphere at Leopardstown as great numbers of people stayed at the track to watch the games, so there is some bit of a silver lining to the clash in terms of racegoer experience.

None of this is ideal. The clash with the St Leger is a real pity and will have negative consequences for both meetings. Not to mention the headaches it will give the top jockeys that will have to choose between riding at one meeting or the other. However, it feels like the right decision has been made given the circumstances that have unfolded. Now, let’s all get behind it and show the world what Irish Flat racing has to offer.

Whip rules in Ireland

Back in March, the IHRB took everyone in Irish racing by surprise when announcing that they planned to introduce a set number of whip strikes that would trigger an enquiry into that whip use. They eventually decided on a figure of nine strikes being the number that would trigger an enquiry.

Since coming into force on April 8th, over 120 individual riders have fallen foul of the new rules with the number of whip offences in that time having already exceeded the total number of 213 whip offences recorded in all of 2018. Last Monday, senior jockeys Kevin Manning, Chris Hayes, Billy Lee and Seamie Heffernan were among six individual riders to be given six-day bans for whip offences.

And for what?

Can you imagine the uproar in Britain if there was such a volume of whip offences, with plenty of them being committed by high-profile riders on the biggest of stages? It would be bedlam. Yet, have you seen any coverage of note on this subject in the Irish media? Not a sniff.

The whip in racing is not an issue of note in Ireland or in wider Irish society. The public aren’t fussed by it and the racing public aren’t either. So, who exactly are the IHRB trying to please in policing the whip in the manner that they are?

As was opined in this space at the time of the announcement of this change, the IHRB got this one wrong. Just because other racing nations are falling over themselves to appease a vocal minority in how they police the whip, there is no such pressure in Ireland. While there is certainly scope to tighten up the whip rules to encourage an even higher standard of riding, the shortcomings of putting a set number of strikes as a trigger point for an enquiry have been well exhibited in Britain and was not the right way for the IHRB to go.

One can only hope that the IHRB don’t just stubbornly bull forward with these whip rules, as they clearly aren’t working. There are no winners in the current situation.

Kevin Blake
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