Kevin Blake

Last week in Ireland, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (formerly known as the Turf Club) released their 2017 racing integrity statistics. The takeaway numbers for Kevin Blake focused on non-triers and he discusses the issue here.

  • Monday 26 February
  • Blog
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Turf Club integrity statistics reveal serious non-trier issues

Last week the Irish racing integrity statistics for 2017 were released by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (formerly known as the Turf Club) and much of the focus has been on the continuance of a long-running decline in numbers of trainers in Ireland.

The latest stats reveal that the number of trainers has dropped to 578 from 805 a decade earlier. This is of course an important matter worthy of discussion, but it was a big surprise that the most glaring statistics in the release have hardly warranted any public comment at all, that of the running-and-riding enquiries in 2017.

When the long-awaited reforms to the non-trier rules in Ireland were delivered at the beginning of 2017, they were billed as “the most complete running and riding regulations in any jurisdiction.” The new rules kicked in on January 20th and the three months the followed saw an increase in stewarding activity.

Indeed, in the first 56 race meetings after the new rules were introduced, there were 13 running-and-riding enquiries, six of which resulted in punishments for the trainer, jockey and horse, in addition to two which resulted in bans for the rider alone.

Without doubt the most high-profile of these bans was the one surrounding the Aidan O’Brien-trained Music Box at Dundalk, an action that seemed designed to exhibit that the stewards meant business and that the rules would be applied across all levels of the sport in Ireland.

However, the real test of anything is over the long term and now with a full year having passed and the full set of data being made available, it is an appropriate time to assess whether the introduction of the new non-trier rules were the game changer in 2017 that it had been hoped they would be.

With that in mind, here are the full numbers for the last four full years, with the final row of numbers being the number of times a punishment was dished out under the running and riding rules that was not subsequently reduced or quashed on appeal.

Turf Club Integrity Statistics

Number of Runners27,47627,04728,93129,936
Number of running and riding enquiries38272929

Those numbers tell us a number of things. Firstly, and most positively for the IHRB is that they show that the new rules have achieved one of their main goals in that it has given the raceday stewards a more robust means to police the sport. It has allowed them to punish wrongdoing more effectively and crucially, their judgements have stood up much better to the appeal process than has been the case in the past.

However, that it where the good news ends. What those numbers also tell us is that while there was a notable increase in stewarding activity in the first few months after the introduction of the new rules, that was very much balanced out by notably less enquiries later in the year resulting in a final tally of running and riding enquiries that merely matched the total from the previous year.

While the IHRB are likely to try and spin this as an indication that trainers and riders became more rule-abiding in the aftermath of that rush of stewarding activity, anyone that watches Irish racing closely is likely to disagree with that explanation. More likely, the raceday stewards were given a good squeeze from the top to up their activity levels in the aftermath of the rule change, but after a while things soon reverted back to normal in terms of policing activity.

Indeed, that was my biggest takeaway from these numbers. After these new rules were introduced, I wrapped up a piece on the subject in this space with these lines: “Supporters of Irish racing can only hope that 2017 will prove to be the year that the Turf Club started to go about policing the sport with a rigour that befits a jurisdiction that has aspirations to be considered the best in the world. Whether this transpires remains to be seen, but at least they can now do the job they are supposed to do without nearly as much fear of their decisions being undermined by appeals and legal challenges. Will 2017 represent a new dawn in the integrity of Irish racing? Only time will tell.”

Unfortunately, what time has told is that rather using what is a vastly-improved and robust non-triers rule to police Irish racing with the rigour that is warranted, the IHRB instead went down the road of making an early show for the cameras and then quietly slid back into their previous state of stewarding inertia.

For there to have been no more than 29 running-and-riding enquiries from over 2,500 races in each of the last three years can only be described as one thing, embarrassing. Anyone that watches Irish racing closely will know that such numbers are a grossly-inadequate effort to police the sport.

Irish racing has an image problem with its integrity both at home and abroad and stats like these only serve to reinforce the notion that it is effectively a free-for-all with no consistency in the enforcement of the rules.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ponder whether the biggest non-trier problem in Irish racing is on the racecourses or in the stewards’ rooms.

All of this leads us back to the well-worn argument of whether a centralised panel of professional stewards would be a more appropriate means to police the integrity of Irish racing. The amateur raceday stewards still very much have an important role to play at the races, but perhaps the enforcing of the integrity rules and decisions on result-altering stewards’ enquiries should be left in the hands of professionals that can do it with a consistency and rigour that will leave none of the sport’s participants in any doubt of the standards that are expected of them.

The current stewarding system has been trying and failing to clean up Irish racing for long enough. It is surely time for a change.

Kevin Blake
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