Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake outlines why Irish racing needs another rating band.

  • Monday 21 October
  • Blog
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BALLOTING ISSUES HIGHLIGHT NEED FOR ANOTHER RATING BAND IN IRISH RACING

We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Balloting is a constant issue in the lower-level handicaps of Irish Flat racing, but the last few years have seen it become a particularly pronounced problem from October through to January, especially on the all-weather at Dundalk.

It had previously been thought that a significant factor in the cluttering of 0-65s at this time was caused by an influx of horses into that band after the traditional end-of-season drop in the ratings that the handicappers undertook to address the inflation of ratings. However, a change in handicapping policy from last year to spread these drops out over a series of regular intervals through the season rather than one big drop at the end of the turf campaign hasn’t seemed to have helped the situation as much as hoped.

As has been the case in the past, HRI have tried to address the issues by putting on a couple of extra meetings, but a lack of funding at this late stage of the year seemingly restricts them in the amount of extra racing they can afford to put on.

As is often trotted out in this space, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, so one can’t help but wonder is more fundamental change required to address these issues rather than patching them up as we go along?

Firstly, it is important for everyone to realise just how numerically significant the lower end of Irish Flat racing is. As of this afternoon, there are 2685 horses with a published official Flat rating on turf in Ireland. The average rating of all of those horses is just 66.7. 51% of them are rated 65 or lower and 32.7% are rated 55 or lower.

Despite making up such a significant proportion of the horse population, it is worth noting that of the 1163 races originally scheduled to take place on the Flat in Ireland in 2019, only 153 (13.2%) of them were 0-65 handicaps.

It is also worth noting that the total amount of prize money that HRI budgeted for 2019 was €66.1m of which approximately €34.5m was for Flat racing. The 153 originally scheduled 0-65 handicaps only account for approximately 4.5% of prize money on the Flat in Ireland.

Granted, the number of 0-65 handicaps that were run will have been slightly increased by race divides and a small number of additional races added to the original schedule, but the point is there for all to see. This substantial demographic of Irish horses and their vast array of connections are not at all well served by the programme book.

While some choose to be dismissive about this group of horses by writing them off as “bad horses”, their importance to the racing industry is huge. They all have owners that pay their upkeep, supporting any number of trainers, jockeys and other service providers in the industry along the way. The least their owners should be able to expect is to be able to run them at regular intervals when they are fit and healthy, but the current system leaves them at the mercy of a restrictive programme book and random balloting that often imposes long gaps in between runs on them. HRI have invested a great amount of funding into promoting and incentivising racehorse ownership, yet the Irish racing system isn’t a particularly attractive one for the clearly huge numbers of those that own lower-rated horses.

HRI have long taken the view that they want to encourage quality. They have established an admirable minimum level of prize money per race, but their reluctance to expand the racing programme at the lower end of the scale does a disservice to a great number of owners in Ireland. They will no doubt respond that they wish to encourage racing of the highest standard rather than servicing the lower end of the rating scale. However, the simple reality is that the average horse in ireland is rated in the mid-to-high 60s and that isn’t going to change any time soon.

The common thought that owners of lower-rated horses should just see them off and spend their training fees on untried stock that might end up being rated higher misunderstands the mindset of many owners in this part of the world. For many owners, it isn’t all about having aspirations to compete at the highest level, they are attached to their horse and they want to see it compete at whatever level they end up at, even if that is the basement level.

So, why not better service that sector and give the multitudes of owners that find themselves in it a better ownership experience by at least giving them more chances to run their horses? Having a good experience, even at a low level, is far more likely to lead to those owners reinvesting in new horses. Right now, the fact that it is such a struggle to even get a run for their low-rated horses is hardly likely to encourage their owners to have another go with a new horse.

For me, the insistence on not running any handicaps in a lower band than 0-65 is what needs to change. Right now in Ireland there are far more horses rated in the 0-55 bracket (879) than in the 56-65 bracket (491). Would it really be that much of a problem to change a portion of 0-65s into 0-55s and/or add some new 0-55s to the calendar?

In order to finance the changes, the 0-55s can be run for lower prize money than 0-65s. The savings made by this can be used to finance additional races at that level. This lower prize money is likely to be considered a tolerable price to pay by trainers/owners with such horses in return for more opportunities to run their horses.

It might also make sense to retain random balloting for these 0-55s, but use traditional balloting for 0-65s. This will likely serve to keep most of the 0-55 horses in that bracket until they earn their way into the 56-65 bracket to compete for the better prize money. It will also give those with horses in that 56-65 bracket more certainty as to when they will be able to run without fear of random balloting.

As someone that has paid particularly close attention to the 0-65 bracket in Ireland for many years and is a big believer in their competitiveness compared to their British equivalents, I have no doubt that 0-55s in Ireland would deliver full fields, competitive racing and produce winners that go on to climb up through the rating brackets.

In conclusion, it seems to have been an ongoing policy of HRI to top-load the prize money structure in Ireland, with prize funds for Group races and premier handicaps having been boosted significantly in recent years. It is about time they gave some more attention to the many rather than the few. If they really want to make racehorse ownership more attractive, they simply have to address the issues at the lower end of Irish racing. Something along the lines of the above suggestion would go a long way to achieving that.


GEOLOGICAL LOVES WOMEN

One of the equine cult heroes of Irish racing reached a notable milestone on Friday night at Dundalk, with the Damian English-trained GEOLOGICAL having his 100th career start. Clearly one with a sense for the dramatic, the seven-year-old did his part for the occasion by gaining his 11th career victory at odds of 22/1.

As well as showing that he still retains plenty of enthusiasm despite his significant mileage, it also reiterated a quirky apparent preference of his. On Friday, he gave Vanessa Maye the first winner of her career. That was the just the sixth occasion in his career that Geological has been ridden by a female rider, yet those runs have now yielded three wins and a second. Ana O’Brien, Michelle Hamilton and now Vanessa Maye all have all won on him, giving the latter two riders the first wins of their careers. The only female rider that has ridden him and failed to win is Rachael Blackmore!

Thus, while his career record shows beyond any doubt that Geological loves racing, there is also no doubt that Geological loves women!

Kevin Blake
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