At Tipperary last Sunday the integrity of Irish racing hit rock bottom. Despite it being a sport in which we are considered a 'world leader' and at the risk of spoiling the Galway party before it has even begun, the events of and following the Kevin McManus Bookmaker Grimes Hurdle were inexplicable. In the language of the day, if Irish Racing Inc were a financial institution or a sovereign economic state, on Monday every ratings agency worth its salt would have downgraded its status to junk.
In the race in question, the favourite Captain Cee Bee obliged under Tony McCoy by a short head. In doing so, they beat the Edward O'Grady-trained and Paddy Mangan-ridden The Real Article, on which Mangan's efforts left something to be desired.
In a nutshell, having tracked McCoy's every move throughout, Mangan's partner was still tanking on the turn for home. He cornered wide, but pinged the second-last and cruised onto the shoulder of Captain Cee Bee, which had just taken the lead.
McCoy, naturally, was by now riding for his life. Mangan remained motionless until they closed in on the last, at which point he began to ask his mount for a little more. The Real Article again flew the hurdle and Mangan proceeded to ride him out hands and heels to the line. He never changed his hands and he never picked up the whip as The Real Article failed by the narrowest of margins to overhaul Captain Cee Bee.
To any objective spectator, the ride appeared entirely inadequate; anyone who backed The Real Article into an 8/1 SP from an opening show of 9/1 will have felt short-changed, likewise anyone who laid the winner. That's as it was. What happened in the subsequent stewards' inquiry is the travesty.
O'Grady, who is based in Tipperary, told the sitting panel that the horse had run far better than expected and that he had instructed Mangan not to hit him. The stewards accepted this, leaving seasoned race-watchers wondering why they had bothered holding an inquiry at all.
The Real Article had hosed up at Down Royal on his previous outing in June, and had been beaten only once in six National Hunt starts. As an improving six-year-old in peak form and with an official rating of 127, there was every chance he would continue to improve and be competitive in a contest that featured a few established 140-odd rated horses, as well as its fair share of dead wood.
It's hard to believe that O'Grady, who has often spoken of the horse in glowing terms, didn't expect it to be up to Sunday's task in some meaningful way -- why else would he have run him? Besides, that should have absolutely no bearing on the matter.
Once the horse is in the race, the Turf Club's rule 212 says: "The rider of every horse shall take all reasonable and permissible measures throughout the race to ensure that his horse is given a full opportunity to win or of obtaining the best possible position."
As for O'Grady's instruction to Mangan not to hit the horse, fair enough, but that's a point the stewards should have probed. After all, he had been hit in previous races.
Underlying all this is that The Real Article is in next week's Galway Hurdle. As things stand, he gets in on or close to the minimum weight, and his price was slashed from double figures to as low as 7/2 on Sunday evening -- the cat was out of the bag.
Had The Real Article won on Sunday, his Galway weight would have been liable for revision at the assessor's discretion. On Monday, the senior handicapper Noel O'Brien revealed that, because of The Real Article's proximity to Captain Cee Bee, he had raised him 18lbs to a mark of 145 for future races.
Theoretically, that means he is now thrown in at Galway. A cynic might conclude that The Real Article was prevented from winning a €40,625 pot to enhance his prospects in a more prestigious event worth €260,000 -- the most valuable jump race in Ireland.
A less cynical view might recommend that Mangan had simply ridden an overconfident race at Tipperary and got caught out. Either way, once O'Grady backed his rider during the inquiry, the onus then fell entirely on the stewards to adjudicate on whether or not one or both men had been guilty of an infringement.
Incredibly, they obviated, in the process reaffirming a commonly held view that they are incapable of or unwilling to apply the rules in a fair and equitable manner. And that's the worst thing about this whole sorry debacle.
At the end of the day, what Mangan's and O'Grady's intentions were is neither here nor there. The British Flat trainer Mark Prescott is one of the most versed and respected operators when it comes to laying horses out for handicaps, and he has gone on record as saying: "Like any accountant dealing with tax, the trainer has a responsibility to exploit any loophole, within the rules, for the benefit of his client."
To that end, if O'Grady, himself renowned for plotting a coup, endeavours to use the system to his advantage, more luck to him. However, when a case as glaringly reprehensible as Sunday's arises, everyone should be dealt with in an impartial way.
That is patently not the case. At the very same Tipperary venue last year, the little-known trainer Michael Connell was handed a €1,500 fine and his jockey Ronan Whelan banned for a week and ordered to forfeit his riding fee after being found guilty of schooling Ballyronan Boy in public. The horse was suspended for 60 days.
In two previous outings, Ballyronan Boy never rose a gallop, and in his subsequent five he continued to suffer seismic thrashings. The horse was void of ability and has presumably been found another vocation, but Connell and Co were a soft touch.
So too was Muredach Kelly at Bellewstown recently. Found guilty of the same offence, Kelly was fined a recession-busting €1,000 and his jockey Andrew Thornton banned for 10 days. Their horse, Rowayton, on a losing streak of 25 going into Bellewstown and without a win since its debut in 2008, was banned for 42 days.
Thornton certainly might have been harder on the horse, but the incident pales in comparison to Sunday's. So it goes.
To be quite honest, the book of evidence that you could level at the incompetence of Irish race-day stewarding is becoming exhaustive, but it's about far more than simply bad decisions. No one is beyond making a wrong call on any given day.
The crux of it all, and what undermines punters' faith in Irish racing to an increasing degree, is that a cabal of untouchables are being given free rein to do as they like without any recourse to the rules of the game. Over the course of the past year, there has been at least two incidents, at Listowel and Punchestown, where high-profile connections have held up their hands to the stewards and got an excuse in early.
On both occasions the tactic worked a treat. Despite indefatigable evidence of two horses not obtaining the best possible position, not to mention irate on-course punters, a repentant jockey saved the day by putting his cap in hand.
Leniency prevailed, a blind eye was cocked. Unlike the anonymous Ballyronan Boy, both horses have since won races.
What all this means is that there is one rule for the elite, and one for those who can readily be used for target practice by the stewards without fear of falling out of favour with the big wigs. It's a shocking indictment of the game in this country that plays no small part in the ever-shrinking pool of money that is being wagered on it, despite overall sports betting figures continuing to rise.
On Thursday, the Turf Club belatedly announced that it is going to review Sunday's episode at 10.30 on Monday morning but, regardless of the outcome, that's of no use to those who felt cheated on the day. The damage has been done.
Perception is king, you see, and no right-minded punter would risk their hard-earned on an uneven playing field. They simply choose to go elsewhere.
For the past 10 years, because of the benevolence of central government via the Horse And Greyhound Racing Fund, that has been of no consequence to Irish racing, so there was no point in rocking the boat. That state of unsustainable bliss is on borrowed time, though, and it will be some reality check when it finally ends.
Maybe integrity will come back into fashion then.