Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake discusses what he deems to be an unsuitable reserve system in Irish racing, putting forward a number of potential solutions which could improve on the current rules in place.

  • Monday 21 January
  • Blog
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TIME FOR CHANGE TO IRISH RESERVE SYSTEM

Would you believe, the practice of having reserves for races in Ireland has been ongoing for over 35 years. For all the time that has passed and the adjustments that have been made to the reserve system in that time, the rules we are left with are far from perfect. They regularly cause uncertainty and inconveniences, while occasionally they can be the focus of serious controversy.

To briefly surmise how the current system works, where the number of declarations exceed the field-size limit, up to three reserves can be added to the race card. The cut-off point for reserves to be added to the field is 90 minutes before the scheduled off time of the start of the first race on the card. If non-runners are declared before that time, reserves that have been declared by their trainer will be added to the starting line-up. Thus, in a race which has reserves, the field is unconfirmed and open to change up to 90 minutes before the start of the first race on the card.

A commonly-poised question is whether the level of uncertainty and controversy that reserves introduce into the equation is really worth the upside of giving the occasional horse a run it otherwise would not have got. To fairly address that question, we best start from the beginning.

Reserves were introduced to Irish racing in 1983 in an effort to ease the increasing problem of balloting. That problem only became bigger during the Celtic Tiger years. Indeed, balloting was considered by many to be the biggest problem in Irish racing during that time with 21,944 horses balloted out of Irish races in 2009. However, the recession sorted that problem out very quickly and the issue is now a comparatively minor one, albeit one that is on the rise again.

Having reached a low of 2,474 in 2015, the number of horses balloted out rose back 4,666 in 2017, the most recent year for which full statistics are available. For added context, there were 2,606 races run in Ireland in 2017.

In terms of the benefits of the reserve system, the following statistics which were published by the IHRB last September show how many additional runners it delivered to Irish racing in a period of just over 19 months. 

For context, during that same period there were a total of 47,024 runners in Ireland, so the 439 reserves that ended up running only accounted for just less than 1% of total runners.

That is the good news for the reserve system, now let’s deal with the bad news.

From a betting point of view, the uncertainty created by the reserve system almost certainly has a negative effect on turnover. It is very difficult for a serious bettor to make fully-informed decisions when the full field is not confirmed and could potentially change dramatically until 90 minutes before the first race on the card.

Just as unsatisfactory is that the bookmakers do not treat reserves in a universal manner. A handful of bookmakers do not price up reserves at all and, if they get a run, bets struck earlier in the day are settled without the reserves. For example, if the bettor’s selection finishes second to a reserve that wasn’t in the line-up at the time of his bet, the punter will be paid out as a winner.

However, most bookmakers choose to price up all the reserves, allowing punters to back them even when they are not confirmed runners. The downside to that is that some of them make Rule 4 deductions if the reserves don’t a run, thus introducing the potential for sharp practice by the bookmakers by pricing reserves at artificially short prices in anticipation of their non-participation.

In addition, there is often confusion as to what stalls reserves will start from on the Flat. For those who don’t know, it is based on the race card order of the non-runners, with the first reserve starting from the stall allocated to the lowest racecard numbered non-runner, the second reserve starting from the stall allocated to the second lowest numbered non-runner and so on.

As awkward as the rules are in straightforward situations, there have been cases whereby everyone thought a reserve would have an ideal draw as the non-runner they were set to replace was well drawn, only for this to change again due to lower-numbered runner with a much worse draw being declared a non-runner and the reserve then being put into that stall.

It is an unnecessarily complex rule that isn’t all that well known even amongst seasoned racing followers and for that reason is clearly unsatisfactory.

It isn’t just the betting public that the reserve system causes problems for either. Many owners and trainers are likely to be frustrated by the uncertainty that comes with being connected to a reserve. Should they go to the expense of sending the horse to the track and/or organise for the owners to be there on the day despite being far from guaranteed a run? It’s far from ideal.

As well as the uncertainty that the current reserve system introduces, perhaps the most concerning aspect of it is how vulnerable it is to manipulation. One of the most infamous cases relating to the reserve system was that of Carlingford Lough getting into and winning the Galway Plate as the first reserve after a horse in the same ownership was withdrawn for what many considered a puzzling reason.

There was a very similar situation in the same race last year with the favourite Patrick’s Park getting into the race as a reserve after a stable mate was withdrawn very close to the deadline for reserves to get into the race. As well as the late change to the line-up, Ruby Walsh was permitted to switch from another horse onto Patrick’s Park after he got into the race, further changing the shape of the race from the original declarations.

In the aftermath of that most recent Galway Plate controversy, last September the IHRB initiated a consultation process whereby they asked various stakeholders in the Irish racing industry that are affected by the reserve system to make submissions with proposals for how the system might be improved. There hasn’t been anything heard on the matter since then, so one can only assume that the IHRB are still looking at the issue.

With that in mind, it is worth putting down on paper some suggested changes that could improve what is an unsatisfactory system.

Personally, I don’t think the benefits of the reserve system justify the routine uncertainty and occasional controversy it creates. The system was created to address the problem of balloting, but as the figures detailed earlier in this piece show, balloting is a very minor issue now compared to what it once was.

With that in mind, I would do away with the reserve system altogether for day-to-day racing. However, I would be in favour of retaining it for premier handicaps on the Flat, the most valuable open National Hunt handicaps or in the rare event of a stakes/Graded race being oversubscribed, but with the following changes made to it.

Currently, there is one exception to the rule whereby the participation of reserves is decided at a cut-off point 90 minutes before the off time of the first race on a card. That is the Irish Grand National for which the cut-off point is brought forward to 10am. At an absolute minimum, the deadline for the finalisation of all fields should be brought forward to 10am or even 9am on the day of racing. This still allows for reserves to get a run, but would lead to the fields being finalised before the morning betting markets go up a gear.

As well as that, on the Flat, reserves should be issued with a draw number at declaration time. That way, everyone knows exactly what stall any reserve will start from if they get a run regardless of what non-runners are declared.

The reserve system may well have been in place for over 35 years, but it is well past it’s sell-by date in this modern era. If Irish racing wants to deliver a betting product that can compete in the international market, unsatisfactory systems such as this need to be cleaned up as a matter of priority.

Kevin Blake
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