Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake has his say on what he deems to be an ongoing issue with Irish stewarding, with the jurisdiction failing to meet standards which have a knock-on effect on perception.

  • Monday 07 January
  • Blog
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It is a sad reality of commenting on the running of Irish racing that you tend to end up repeating yourself over the course of a number of years. Change comes slowly, if it comes at all, and that has certainly been the case with the stewarding of Irish racing.

At the beginning of 2017, the long-awaited reforms to the non-trier rules in Ireland were delivered in a blaze of publicity. Indeed, they were billed by Denis Egan, Chief Executive of the IHRB, as being “the most complete running and riding regulations in any jurisdiction.”

The hope of every progressive supporter of Irish racing was that these new rules would prove to be a watershed moment for the sport in Ireland. That these new rules would empower the stewards to police the sport with the rigour that was necessary to improve the tarnished reputation of Irish racing’s integrity.

The new rule started off with promise, with the three months that followed their introduction seeing a significant increase in stewarding activity resulting in six punishments under the new Rule 212. In particular, the high-profile ban dished out to the Aidan O’Brien-trained Music Box at Dundalk seemed designed to exhibit that the stewards meant business and that the rules would be applied across all levels of the sport in Ireland.

Unfortunately, that start has proven to be nothing more than a false dawn. A big show for the cameras that wasn’t followed through on. As the following statistics show, after those first three months of 2017 the number of running and riding enquires and subsequent punishments that held up to the appeal process fell back to similar levels of where they were before the new rule came in.

Number of Runners27,47627,04728,93129,93629,790
Number of running
and riding enquiries

While supporters of the IHRB could try to spin these numbers as being a reflection that the new Rule 212 has served to clean up the integrity of Irish racing, it is doubtful they could do so with a straight face. Anyone that watches Irish racing closely is unlikely to think that a single thing has changed since the beginning of 2017. The same problems persist, the same inconsistency in stewarding remains and far too much still goes officially unquestioned.

The most glaring example of this came last month when the acting stewards at Fairyhouse failed to call a running-and-riding enquiry into the run of Ilikedwayurthinkin after the 7/2 favourite finished a very eye-catching fifth in a handicap hurdle. It was a run that generated so much comment that Denis Egan went on the record to address the furore that it caused. The individual can judge whether they felt the run transgressed the rules, but for the stewards to conclude that such an eye-catching run wasn’t even worthy of an official enquiry was frankly embarrassing, as was Egan’s subsequent justification of that decision.

The new Rule 212 specifically mentions that every horse should be “seen, to a reasonable and informed member of the racing public, to have run on its merits.” It couldn’t be clearer in this case that reasonable and informed members of the racing public were badly let down by the raceday stewards at Fairyhouse by not having glaring questions asked on their behalf.

That is just one high-profile example of what is a constant flow of instances of the stewards failing to officially enquire into questionable rides which can be found at quite literally every single race meeting run in Ireland.

As frustrating as the ongoing inaction of the stewards is, it is just as concerning that their rare action in dishing out running and riding punishments has been so ineffectual. One of the headline claims surrounding the new Rule 212 was that it was sufficiently robust to stand up to a thorough appeal process that had led to multiple high-profile cases being quashed in recent years. However, it is telling to note that of the seven punishments dished out for non-trying in 2018, six of them were appealed and on four of those occasions the punishments were either quashed or reduced.

Given that the new Rule 212 is so extensive, that so many of the punishments for non-trying didn’t stand up to the appeal process in 2018 suggests that the rule isn’t the problem, it is either that the raceday stewards are regularly getting it wrong on the very rare occasions they take action or that the Appeals Body has a completely different interpretation of the rules to the raceday stewards.

The conclusion to draw from all of this should be obvious and has been obvious to close observers of Irish racing for many years. The current model of stewarding is not fit for the purpose of policing what happens in races. The system of voluntary stewards aided by a stipendiary steward works perfectly fine for performing the numerous functions that ensure the raceday runs smoothly, but for those same stewards to also be asked to police every horse in every race is clearly too much.

The solution is glaringly obvious and has been for a long time. A rotating panel of professional stewards that are highly-skilled race readers should be utilised solely to police the races themselves. They don’t even need to be based at the track, as technology can provide them with all the necessary angles at an off-track location. The raceday stewards can be used to collect any evidence required from the participants and relay it to the centralised panel of stewards who can take their time in rendering the decisions without having to deal with the time pressure and emotion that is added into the equation in racecourse stewards’ rooms. This is the only way the job can be done properly to the required standard.

On a related subject, another constant issue with Irish stewarding is the lack of detail given out after enquiries and referrals. Many hoped that lessons would be learned in the aftermath of the Paul Townend debacle at the Punchestown Festival in April where the stewards made a difficult situation worse for everyone by choosing to not release the specific details of the evidence given until the day after the incident, but that hasn’t proven to the case.

IHRB communications routinely only give bare minimum details and often omit significant evidence and nuances that would greatly increase the public understanding of what has occurred.

A recent example has been the reporting of the details of the spate of positive drug tests in Irish racing, with the post-hearing reports omitting crucial details such as how far over the threshold the horse(s) tested and the specific explanations given by the trainers in question.

In many cases, it has only been after IHRB representatives or the subjects of the enquiries themselves have been questioned by the press that significant details have been made public. This represents a serious communications failure of the IHRB’s behalf, as their reports should give every single relevant detail so that any reader of it would be left in no doubt regarding the who, how and whys of the cases. The BHA have been doing this for many years and there is no reason why the IHRB shouldn’t do so too.

In this day and age, perception is everything. The vacuum that is so regularly created as a result of the inaction of raceday stewards and poor communication by the INRB will only serve to worsen the already damaged reputation of the integrity of Irish racing. With there being so many other problems in Irish racing at present, can we as a sport really afford to ignore something so fundamental as the shortcomings of our integrity systems?

Kevin Blake
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