Monday 22 July 2019

Hindsight makes even shocks predictable

The story of Aidan O’Brien’s impending departure from Ballydoyle will prove the exact reverse : one of rumour without ultimate substance
The story of Aidan O’Brien’s impending departure from Ballydoyle will prove the exact reverse : one of rumour without ultimate substance

Ian McClean

I have greater sympathy now for how poor Oisín must have felt on his return from Tír na nÓg. I fritter off for a few weeks' vacation and, upon my return, the three headlines illuminating racing's landscape involve Paddy Power merging with Betfair; Aidan O'Brien leaving Ballydoyle; and rapidly ascending rookie trainer Olly Stevens jacking it in with Sheikh Fahad.

"I never make predictions, and I never will" is a line variously attached to anyone from Paul Gascoigne to Tony Blair, but in an era where speed of change is challenging speed of light, predictions are becoming ever more precarious and conventional wisdom ever more, well, unconventional.

Next you'll be telling me that Jeremy Corbyn will spearhead UK Labour, Donald Trump will top the Republican poll, the Chinese economy will tank, Tesco will decline and AFC Bournemouth will play in the Premier League. Yet, we are condemned forever to making predictions. In horse racing, it constitutes the very essence of the sport's attraction.

In his book Future Babble, Canadian author Dan Gardner suggests that above all in making predictions we should remain humble, a quality many of our more hubristic media commentators could do with a dose of. And so back to my return from Tír na nÓg . . . There weren't many predicting the merger of Paddy Power and Betfair to create the world's largest online gambling company. Although (I'm venturing here) in the ultimate case of double jeopardy Paddy Power did announce on Twitter just a month ago, "Hot on the heels of the Ladbrokes/Coral merger, we can exclusively reveal that we have merged with Betfair. Our new name is Betty Power".

In a way, when you look at the deal, it has a parallel with horse racing in that it isn't rare to get a shock result in racing, but in my experience, aside from the very odd black swan freak outcome which defies all explanation, even the highly unexpected (like Arabian Queen in York's International) can be rationalised with hindsight given the circumstances. The art of speculation, after all, is being able to perceive in advance an improbable outcome unseen by most others that becomes perfectly plausible in hindsight. When you look at the merger now, however unforeseen it was in advance, it makes perfect sense in hindsight.

Everything from the complementarity of the geographic market spread to the return to the fold of ex-COO Breon Corcoran. In addition, in an epoch of hastily increasing corporate globalisation the rule now is simple: eat or be eaten. The betting industry in the recent past has begun to resemble pharmaceuticals for its appetite. We have Ladbrokes swallowing Betdaq, Coral and Ladbrokes eating each other and William Hill trying unsuccessfully to gobble up 888 earlier this year. So, really, given all that, how could we have missed it?

While the merger story was one of a shock announcement without prior rumour, my suggestion is the story of Aidan O'Brien's impending departure from Ballydoyle will prove the exact reverse : one of rumour without ultimate substance. That is not to say there is not some disquiet in the camp, but one acorn on the head does not mean the whole sky is falling down. Certainly not while still capable of filling 50 per cent of the latest entries for the UK's final classic the St Leger.

Many will be focused on O'Brien's Bondi Beach, Order of St George and others at the head of the market. I can see a very attractive alternative at much bigger odds. The French have not won Britain's oldest classic since Toulon in 1991, but it could be that Sumbal is about to break that quarter-century duck. Winner on his first three starts, the latter of which (Group Two Prix Greffulhe) was previously won by the likes of Suave Dancer, Peintre Celebre, Montjeu, Dalakhani and Pour Moi, Sumbal's only career defeat came in the Prix du Jockey Club when a combination of faster ground and trouble in running meant he could finish only fifth. The combination of a longer trip and softer ground could bring about massive improvement from this still unexposed colt.

In anticipation of a big run at Deauville this afternoon, the time to get on is before 3.10 today. He is currently 16/1 best for the Leger with, of all firms, Paddy Power. I concede after all that this is a prediction. Yet a humble one.

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