Sunday 17 December 2017

Fairness will be violated all too often when rules are so unclear

Trainer Aidan O'Brien
Trainer Aidan O'Brien

Ian McClean

If Cheltenham week back in March gets the 2015 award for Most Enthrallingly Heart-warming (remember Coneygree; nail-biting Ireland 13 v 14 England in the very final race; Annie Power arising unscathed from a terminal-looking spill and much, much more); then this past week in racing gets the nod for the most bizarre by far.

To borrow the acronym created by Conor Cruise O’Brien to paraphrase Charlie Haughey’s remarks on events in 1982: the week that was is certainly odds-on for the 2015 GUBU (Grotesque, Unprecedented, Bizarre and Unbelievable) award.

To skim across the surface: both feature races last Saturday were subject to a stewards’ ruling — the UK St Leger winner infringed a rival and got thrown out, while across the card, the Irish Champion winner infringed a rival and kept the race;  Coolmore cried wolf with Gleneagles again by avoiding yet another showdown owing to ground conditions.

Meanwhile, Aidan O’Brien managed to go almost unheralded in spite of winning four Group Ones on the weekend; while David O’Meara, who recently denied that he is on the move to Ballydoyle, passed equally unnoticed despite wins in three international Group races; Brown Panther suffered a fatal injury trying to repeat the feat of his finest hour in the Irish St Leger; Treve demonstrated a devastating disdain for her Vermeille rivals as she teed up a historic third Arc tap-in in a fortnight; while another Arc trial winner, Luca Cumani, lost his largest, most long-standing patron in an unceremoniously mystifying move that has instantaneously devastated his string.

All in all, if you had bad news, it would be a good week to bury it.

Yards of blog, tweet and print space have been committed already to many of the events, but perhaps the most yardage has been spent on the issue of the double stewards’ enquiry in the two poster races on either side of the Irish Sea. The improbable occurrence has certainly been the most divisive of opinion. Some of the latest neuro-scientific research identifies that one of the core elements to drive social motivation and behaviour is fairness. Especially when we feel it has been infringed, we are hard-wired to have our emotions provoked. In light of that, it is hardly surprising then that events at Town Moor and Foxrock triggered so many towards righteous self-expression. Many were indignant that Simple Verse was disqualified, but for a variety of reasons. Some on the grounds that she was simply the best horse in the race. Some pointed to the fact that Bondi Beach wasn’t closing the filly down at the line. Others drew on the fact that the articulate native-speaking Colm O’Donoghue was far more persuasive in the stewards room than the staccato second tongue of Andrea Atzeni. Some were even irate that the  underdog (Ralph Beckett) was dispatched in favour of a racing Goliath (Aidan O’Brien).

All are strands of the same story, yet each is laced with the same theme of fairness violated. Those who commented on the generic implications, as opposed to the specific offences of the case, also were baked in transgressions of fairness. For example, in the UK and Ireland (UK in particular), we have become so conditioned over the past number of years of the benefit of the doubt resting with the incumbent that we’ve almost dismissed entirely the notion of the first past the post ever getting disqualified. A jockey would almost have to commit a double murder in broad daylight for the stewards to reverse the placings over these last years.

Yet, in the tightest of cases on Town Moor last Saturday, where you could reasonably argue both sides, in their wisdom they chose to do just that. The anger expressed often in many quarters is down to inconsistency of stewarding, which of course is unfair. All of which leads back to the source of the problem — the rule itself. It simply is not clear enough. Even industry experts were at odds over the finer points of whether the rule allowed disqualification based on probability of outcome (without interference) or whether it needed to be based “beyond all reasonable doubt”. If industry professionals under cool reflection are challenged, then what chance does a panel of amateurs have in the heat of the moment of interpreting a rule that is as dense as the definition of what constitutes a legitimate tackle in GAA?

None of this is to mention the fact that if the Doncaster race had been run on French or American soil, Simple Verse would have been instantly disqualified with no truck from anyone, so clear is the rule on interference. Mind you, so too would Golden Horn at Leopardstown for his manoeuvre in bull-dozing Free Eagle which would have awarded the race to Found, palpably the third best horse in the race who just happened to avoid any skirmish. Now that’s hardly fair either.

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