Schooling charade must be challenged
No joined-up thinking between Turf Club stewards and appeals panels
A Turf Club panel will tonight hear the appeals of Barry Geraghty, Tony Martin and JP McManus against the Limerick stewards' findings in respect of the Noble Emperor case.
On April 3, Geraghty and Martin were sanctioned under the non-triers rule, with Geraghty suspended for 30 days, the horse for twice that and Martin fined €3,000.
To the naked eye, Geraghty failed in his duty to give the 7/4 favourite a reasonable chance of winning by allowing his closest market rival Velocity Boy build up a clear lead, and the case against him was compounded when he made no perceptible effort to go after Velocity Boy until approaching two-out. By then, the race was over.
Geraghty's endeavours looked inadequate, especially by the standards you would expect of such an accomplished rider. In the enquiry, Martin expressed himself happy with the ride and stated that he didn't feel that a pulled shoe had a detrimental effect on Noble Emperor's performance, which, in the cryptic world of Irish stewards' enquiries, might have been enough to have the case thrown out.
Geraghty, one of the game's most senior jockeys, stated that he was unable to chase the clear leader earlier as he was riding "strictly to instructions". The question that begs, then, is whether he was instructed not to win?
Noble Emperor had raced handily and led early in the straight when he won at Punchestown in December and made most of the running when winning at Fairyhouse in January 2015.
The stewards clearly didn't accept Geraghty's explanation of events and handed him one of the longest bans here in recent times.
When Martin backed his rider, the stewards could have still taken the easy option of finding Geraghty guilty of an ill-judged ride, which removes any implication of intent.
They didn't, and, regardless of what the appeals panel finds, the stewards are to be applauded for having the backbone to make the findings that they did.
If Geraghty merely misjudged things, which is quite plausible, the ban is harsh. However, if it's the case that he wilfully set out to prevent Noble Emperor from winning, then the sanctions are deserved.
All the other beaten riders were also interviewed but their horses were back-pedalling at the finish and those cases were dismissed.
At Ballinrobe last Friday, Robbie Colgan received a 21-day ban under the same rule for his efforts aboard Definite Earl, which was suspended for 60 days and its trainer David Broad fined €2,000. Both have indicated that they will appeal.
Definite Earl, which laboured home in the Limerick race, this time finished with a flourish to be second.
You could argue he benefited from a sympathetic ride in a strongly run race that enabled him to get home, or that Colgan never got overly serious with the horse.
The wagons have been circled over both rides, and defending them individually is not unreasonable.
Maybe two incidents of injustice have been perpetrated, but, in the greater scheme of things, tackling endemic issues of schooling in public is long overdue. It's all a bit of a charade.
Racing in this country has a now well-established - and borderline accepted - reputation as an oddity in terms of integrity.
Abuse of the system has become institutionalised, all in the name of a favourable handicap mark.
Despite living in an age when everything can be viewed over and over, the issue has got worse, rather than better. We thought it had reached a nadir when The Real Article fiasco unfolded at Tipperary in 2011 and then the subsequent farce that followed, with the Turf Club's quest to probe the episode failing on a technicality.
Sadly, it hadn't, and fans and analysts are still more aghast when stewards look into a dubious ride than when they don't.
That is a shocking indictment of our regulatory body, which, to this day, deploys teams of amateur stewards to police race-day events that generate millions of euro in betting revenue. The culture has to change.
At Fairyhouse on November 28, the stewards called five running-and-riding enquiries, four of which involved horses owned by McManus.
The influential owner's Alan Crowe-ridden and Pat Fahy-trained Shantou Ed was deemed to have been a non-trier, as was Tony Martin's Philip Enright-ridden Bobbie's Diamond.
Both jockeys were banned for a week, the trainers fined €1,000 and the horses suspended for 30 days. We were all left a bit stunned by the new rigour.
On appeal, the trainers presented veterinary evidence that wasn't available to the stewards on the day, and all sanctions were quashed.
That tends to be how these things roll, as finding on the balance of probability that a horse has intentionally been 'stopped' leaves the regulator open to a variety of serious legal challenges.
As such, on the particular issue of running-and-riding enquiries, appeals panels sing from a different hymn sheet to stewards.
We know this because, as highlighted in an At The Races blog by Kevin Blake, from 27,000 individual runs on Irish tracks last year, just 27 running-and-riding enquiries were held.
Just one case resulted in a guilty finding that wasn't overturned on appeal. Nothing to see here!
That hardly tallies with what the world and its wife sees as a matter of routine on Irish racecourses, namely systematic schooling in public.
Notwithstanding that there is an onus on connections to utilise the structures within which they operate to best effect, blatant disregard for the rules makes a mockery of the game.
It is also unfair on those stewards that now strive to police the game in keeping with the letter and spirit of the law, when impartial efforts to steward in a fair and equitable manner without fear or favour are habitually rendered futile by a sympathetic appeals system.
In the past, stewards had a tendency to clamp down hard on soft targets, whilst turning a blind eye to the sport's heavyweights. That is not something that they can be readily accused of anymore, so it is a pity then that their plucky endeavours to repair the sport's integrity tend to be in vain.
If it's the case that evidence is permissible on appeal that wasn't available to stewards on race day, the Turf Club must be prepared to fight fire with fire. In short, are they investigating betting patterns surrounding the races in question?
That should be a given, as otherwise it is almost impossible to objectively prove intent. However, if there is corroborating evidence one way or another, it must be brought to bear.
The appeals process is a pivotal function that exists to ensure a sense of redress and fairness, but it is time to take some of the "he says, she says" guesswork out of it.
A year ago, following a similar finding against McManus's Jessica Harrington-trained High Tail It, an appeals panel quashed the trainer's €1,000 fine and the horse's 42-day ban. Mark Bolger was left to carry the can, although his seven-day ban was reduced to four days.
Unless the Turf Club brings new evidence to the table today, regular observers of appeal procedures expect a broadly similar outcome.
Regardless of the merits of this particular case, that sense of inevitability reflects poorly on the Turf Club's role as an effective regulator. Period.
Nicholls ensures title race will go distance
After Willie Mullins sacked Aintree and departed with a lead of £182,000 over Paul Nicholls, he traded at 1/10 to emulate Vincent O'Brien by bringing the British trainers' crown this way. Nicholls, though, chipped away all week.
Going to Ayr on Saturday, he had whittled the gap to £133,000. Then he turned the whole thing on its head with a four-timer that included Vicente's £119,595 Coral Scottish Grand National triumph.
After another four-timer at Wincanton yesterday, Nicholls leads by £43,159 and is as low as 8/13 to retain the title; Mullins is as big as 11/8. It is going to be enthralling.
Nicholls, who has won just five races worth more than £50,000 this term, is well positioned to extend his advantage with entries all over the place. Mullins has just 12 entries between Wednesday and Friday at Perth, Taunton and Warwick.
Ultimately, it might come down to how much quality he can send to Sandown on Saturday, where the grand finale boasts a prize fund of £485,000. Apart from Vroum Vroum Mag, he has yet to commit anything of note, but he may have to throw caution to the wind.
How far is he willing to go to achieve something that he might not get a chance to again? Could Vautour, Un De Sceaux or even Douvan be pitched in against Sprinter Sacre, or might Vautour, Djakadam or Don Poli be rolled out for the Grade Two chase over two miles and six furlongs worth £28,474 to the winner?
Mullins, 0-5 at Ayr, is guaranteed to be awarded a 10th title at home on Saturday week. Nicholls also has nine championships to his name.
You couldn't call who will get a 10th first, but it is no more a done deal now than it was a week ago.
Tweet of the weekend
Lynne Lyons (@Lynne_Lyons)
Ah jeepers, my Dad's horse has just won the bumper at Ayr, trained by Paul Nicholls. #MixedFeelings #NichollsVMullins
A conflicted Lynne Lyons, Scottish-born wife of leading Flat trainer Ger, after Gibbs Bay's win on Saturday.
€70,000 The total prize fund up for grabs at tomorrow night's Godolphin Stud & Stable Staff Awards in Adare's Dunraven Arms Hotel.