Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake once again tackles the lack of information available to owners, trainers, jockeys and punters in Irish racing after the Curragh's unfair rail movements last Friday.

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CURRAGH RAIL CONFIGURATION HIGHLIGHTS INFORMATION SHORTCOMINGS IN IRISH RACING

The concluding six-furlong handicap at the Curragh last Friday created a bit of a stir after the following image was broadcast on Racing TV prior to the start.

This unorthodox rail configuration was evidently put in place as the Curragh wanted keep the action towards the far side of the track to save the ground on the near side, but to do so like this is unsatisfactory on a number of levels.

Firstly, the horses drawn in high numbers (on the right of the above image) were clearly disadvantaged by this configuration, as they had to cover more ground to funnel across as the track narrowed. It essentially created an artificial draw bias that was fundamentally unfair to those drawn high. Connections and backers of high-drawn horses would be entitled to feel aggrieved.

However, the most annoying thing about this case is that seeing those images on Racing TV was the first time the vast majority of people were made aware that this funnel rail was going to be in use.

In the five ground updates from the Curragh that were published on the HRI website and sent out on the IHRB SMS Service, not only was there no mention of this unorthodox rail configuration that changed the playing field in the sprint handicap, it wasn’t even revealed that racing would take place on the extreme far side of the track.

The Curragh have been inconsistent in reporting the rail arrangements in their straight for many years now. With the position of the rail in straight making a difference to the impact of the draw, it is something that really should have been remedied many years ago.

Is it really that hard to add an extra line of text to the ground report stating what racing line will be used?

Long-term readers of this column will know that issues such as the above are not as bad as they used to be in Irish racing. Back in 2012 and 2013, simple ground updates were very sporadic from a lot of Irish tracks, never mind more detailed information about weather, watering or rail movements.

It seemed to be every few weeks that an unsatisfactory situation emerged on this front that was covered in this space. Thankfully, the situation improved in response to such criticism, but it has now stagnated.

Irish racecourses still remain well behind their British counterparts in this area. For example, this was the last update from Pontefract with the regard to their meeting today (Monday June 10th):

PONTEFRACT (Updated: 6:42) Good

 (GoingStick:7.4 on 10-06-2019 at 06:30)

 Stalls: Inside all races

 There is a false running rail approximately 15 feet out from the permanent rail adding approximately 8 yards to all races.

 Partly Cloudy. Dry on Sunday and dry overnight following 21mm rain last week.

 A dry, bright start to Monday but rain, heavy at times, is forecast from around midday and is due to continue, on and off, throughout the day and evening (c10mm)

In comparison, here is the last update from Roscommon prior to their meeting today:

Roscommon

Mon, Jun 10

Issued Date: 10-Jun-19 at 08:04

GOING: Yielding. (Flat) & Good (NH). 2.5mm of rain yesterday. Selective watering on NH track yesterday evening and monitoring situation with regard to further watering. Risk of heavy showers this afternoon.

This isn’t designed as a dig at Roscommon. In fact, by the standards of Irish racecourses in this area, that is quite a detailed report. Yet, it still lags behind the British standards of information.

How much watering was done and on what parts of the track? Has there been rail movements and if so have they affected race distances? Is there any estimate of how much rain is forecast? These are all details that could be added to make the report more informative for all.

Another element that is present in all updates from British racecourse is GoingStick readings. The use of this tool to produce objective numerical assessments of the ground conditions in addition to the opinion of the Clerk of the Course has been mandatory on all British racecourses since March 2007.

It has stood the test of time there, but the Irish authorities have yet to take the plunge and introduce it to Irish racing. There have reportedly been trials undertaken over the years in Ireland, but inconsistent readings when the ground was particularly testing during the winter months seemingly raised concerns over its reliability in such conditions.

However, even if those concerns are warranted, why not introduce it just for Flat racing in Ireland?

Not content with waiting, Gowran Park have seized the initiative in this regard, investing in their own GoingStick and producing ground maps which have been very well received. This is the standard of information that the likes of the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association and the Association of Irish Racehorse Owners should be demanding across the board in Irish racing in the interests of their members. 

As much work as there is still to be done on pre-racing ground reports in Ireland, there is also scope for post-race ground reporting to be introduced on a universal level in both British and Irish racing.

As hard as everyone involved tries to produce accurate ground reports, they won’t always be right for various reasons and indeed they can change as a meeting is in process due to drying or worsening conditions.

The most pertinent evidence of how the ground rode in a race is the race itself and the likes of Timeform produce sophisticated time-based ground descriptions on a race-by-race basis. These compensate for any initial inaccuracies in the ground reports, as well as any changes that have taken place since racing commenced.

Personally, I no longer use official ground descriptions when studying form, I use the ground description that Timeform have decided on based on their post-race analysis. The regularity with which Timeform’s conclusion differentiates from the official ground description raises obvious concerns that inaccurate ground descriptions are being logged in the formbook for all time, which is surely in no one’s interests.

It would make sense to me if a well-qualified individual or organisation was contracted by the IHRB and BHA to return time-based post-race ground descriptions that can then be logged into the official form databases to ensure historical accuracy of such all-important information.

However, if such analysis is to be conducted in Irish racing, one area that must be brought up to scratch is the accuracy race distances and furlong poles. For those that conduct time-based analysis, it is absolutely crucial that the precise distances each race is run over is known and that furlong poles are in accurate positions.

Inaccuracies in this regard will skew their analysis resulting in false conclusions.

Again, this is an area that has seen improvement since the infamous Clonard Street case at Galway in 2014. The year after that, many Irish tracks quietly remeasured their race distances and published them.

Those distances have been in use since and change as different rail configurations are utilised through the course of the season, but those that analyse times in Irish racing regularly report concerns that races are still being run over incorrect distances and furlong poles are not accurately placed due to rail movements.

There is only one solution to this ongoing issue and that is for the IHRB to issue a directive to all Irish racecourses requiring them to measure each track before racing using a fixed methodology and report the actual distances being run over as well as ensuring that the furlong poles are in the correct positions.

It doesn’t matter if the distances change from meeting to meeting based on race movements, all that matters is that everyone is made aware of what distance is being run over. This has been the requirement in Britain for a number of years now and it works well for everyone.

With time-based analysis becoming more and more popular, there will be no hiding place for Irish racecourses on this front. Inaccurate distances and furlong poles stand out like sore thumbs to those that crunch times and it will be a great pity if Irish tracks and/or the IHRB have to be embarrassed into taking action on this front rather than taking positive action themselves.

I would happily bet pounds to pennies that such changes will eventually be made in Irish racing as pressure on that front is only going to increase with more technical analysis of racing becoming ever more popular.

One can only hope that the IHRB don’t drag their heels on it for too much longer. They are already well behind the curve on it.

Kevin Blake
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