Sunday 27 May 2018

No winners in this turf war

Michael O'Leary's High Court threat is in nobody's interests, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

AS soon as it hit first light on the morning of November 21, Peter Roe, Fairyhouse general manager, as is his race-day custom, set off on a circuit of the racecourse. It was a damp, miserable Wednesday morning and 2mm of rain had fallen overnight. At declaration stage the previous day, the official going had been described as yielding to soft/soft in places. Now after walking the track and consulting his ground staff, Roe decided that a change was required.

So at 8.30 that morning the official going was changed to soft/yielding to soft in places – indicating a slight deterioration in conditions – and word was sent out to media outlets and stables around the country. Although it wouldn't have formed any part of Roe's thought process, the announcement came 90 minutes before final declarations were due for the following day's card in Thurles.

The latter detail is relevant because Devils Pride, the six-year-old gelding owned by Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud, was declared to run at both venues. At 11.30 that morning, however, he was scratched from the Fairyhouse race. The acting stewards ruled that there hadn't been a sufficient change in the going to warrant no penalty. Willie Mullins, Devils Pride's trainer, was fined the standard €200 and the horse suspended for two days, thus missing his intended outing at Thurles.

What seemed like no more than a minor setback for Gigginstown at the time, though, took a turn last week when O'Leary threatened High Court action if an appeal to the Turf Club fell on deaf ears. In an instant, the seemingly innocuous topic of non-runners and late withdrawals had become a ticking time bomb that had many in Irish racing shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

In setting out his grievances to the Racing Post, O'Leary made several interesting observations. "The rule says that a change of going allows a horse to come out," he said. "It is clear from the horse's form that Devils Pride doesn't go on soft ground. It was given as yielding/yielding to soft in places and we declared him with the intention of running him if the ground didn't get any worse.

"There was no conspiracy. He'd have beaten [Gigginstown's] Ally Cascade on better ground. But the ground changed and Willie [Mullins] told us that, in his opinion, it was soft ground, the horse wouldn't go on it and would be better off going to Thurles on Thursday. The ground changed – twice in fact – because after the fourth race they were calling it soft all over. The earlier description wasn't accurate because it was a dry day at Fairyhouse.

"There's either a change in the official going or there isn't. For some steward at Fairyhouse to say that there wasn't sufficient change in the going is pure rubbish. Is there a rule or not?"

O'Leary's comments, however, take little account of the change in the going announced by Roe at 8.30 that morning and make no allowance for the fact that opinions on the state of ground conditions can vary from person to person. Roe spoke to a jockey after the first race on the card who thought the ground was riding quicker than the official going suggested. It is, up to a point, a subjective enterprise.

Nor is it unusual for the going to be amended during racing to account for ground that is inevitably deteriorating from race to race. After the fourth race, the ground had been sufficiently churned up to warrant an official change to soft. This wasn't necessarily, as O'Leary implies, an admission of any earlier inaccuracy. As Devils Pride had been declared to run in the opening race on the card, it was all but irrelevant to his case anyway.

O'Leary is right to point out that a change of going permits horses to be withdrawn from races. In a climate where weather conditions are so fickle and going can alter dramatically and quickly, common sense dictates, of course, that such allowances are made. But the relevant section of Rule 194 also states quite clearly that late withdrawals cannot be made without penalty.

"Where a horse is withdrawn due to 'ground conditions'," it states, "a fine of €200 shall be imposed on the trainer and the horse shall not be permitted to run in any race for two days, commencing on the day following the race meeting, unless permission for the withdrawal is granted by the stewards."

In one sense, then, the case with Devils Pride seems cut and dried. Once the stewards ruled there hadn't been enough of a change in the going to warrant a late withdrawal, they were within their rights to impose the sanctions they did. But the rule allows for an element of discretion and, in practice, how it is applied can vary from case to case. There is no black and white.

That trainers often find fault with official going descriptions is a matter of course. The system trundles along because they mostly do what they deem best for their horses and then argue their case as best they can in the stewards' room. A €200 fine may hurt some in the pocket more than others but, in the main, they take their punishment on the chin and move on.

"At the end of the day it comes down to your opinion against theirs," said one prominent trainer. "If the ground is not the way my horse

wants it, then I'm not going to run. I don't care what the clerk of the course says. I won't run. I'll take my medicine, the €200 or whatever it is. It doesn't bother me."

For the sport to run as smoothly as possible, however, the Turf Club's opinion must carry more weight than others. "It's like a free in a hurling match," the trainer continues. "I mightn't like it, but what can I do about it? If the ref says you handled it, that's all that matters. The same with a tackle. Unless there's a blatant miscarriage of justice, you just have to bite your lip and accept it."

O'Leary, though, isn't prepared to bite his lip on the Devils Pride sanctions and, as of yet, with Gigginstown's appeal likely to be heard this week, there is no sign of acceptance. And quite what has got him into such a tizzy as to threaten war with Irish racing's ruling body is perplexing those in a sport which hasn't seen much High Court activity since Jim Bolger and Christy Roche took on the Turf Club in the latter years of the last millennium.

You have to view the Devils Pride case within the wider context of Gigginstown's increasing dominance of Irish jump racing. Yet according to Racing Post figures, more than 10 per cent of Gigginstown entries since January 1, 2012, have been declared non-runners. The corresponding figures for JP McManus and Jackie Bolger are 6.6 and 4.8 per cent respectively.

In November, Gigginstown had eight withdrawals due to ground conditions which resulted in penalties in five cases. In Cork on November 3, a day he had four non-runners, the Noel Meade-trained Road To Riches was suspended for four days and the matter referred to the Turf Club. Gigginstown was cleared of any wrongdoing last week.

One thing we need to remember is that the non-runner rule, far from a piece of routine book-keeping, serves an important and distinct function on the racing calendar. In a country with a large horse population, it is designed to maximise opportunities for owners to get races for their horses and, more importantly, serve as a deterrent to those tempted to exploit loopholes in the reserve system.

By common consent, however, none of this applies to O'Leary. The Gigginstown owner receives widespread admiration for the manner in which his horses, often competing against each other in top graded races, always seem to be running on their own merits. Nobody is questioning his integrity which makes his stance on the issue of multiple declarations and his obstinacy on the Devils Pride affair all the more difficult to figure out.

What exactly O'Leary has to gain by going to war with the Turf Club or what point of principle he is fighting for isn't clear. What is certain is that, in threatening such a nuclear option, he has put the ruling body in an appalling position: dismiss his appeal and they face the prospect of a High Court summons, find in his favour and they risk the derision of those who will see nothing but a spineless retreat. In speaking so forcefully, O'Leary left them in a no-win situation and did nobody any favours, least of all himself.

And it's utterly perplexing because it all seems so needless. Consider those two strange days in the life of Devils Pride. The entries at Fairyhouse and Thurles would have cost €160. The cost of transport from Mullins' yard to Fairyhouse would not have come cheap. As one observer puts it: "They don't travel Ryanair class from Closutton". There was stable staff to be paid on top of other expenses. Throw in the trainer's fine and, perhaps, the potential prize money that went abegging the following day in Thurles and it doesn't seem outlandish to suggest the entire episode would have set O'Leary back several thousand euro.

For a man who has always appreciated the value of a €1 flight you imagine that should – in a rational world – make as little sense to O'Leary as it does to the rest of the Irish racing community.

Sunday Independent

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