16th April 2016
It seems that in racing, more than any other sport, we have come to a position where the public believe that information about the well-being of the participants and/or ‘inside information’ on how they are likely to perform is at least as important as their recent form. It is a very unhealthy state to be in.
Can you imagine a situation where a football manager or coach was asked if one of the players was going to score in a game or how many goals in total the team would score? It would be ridiculous to ask such questions, and if they were answered it would immediately put the game under suspicion as to whether it was fixed, but no more ridiculous than the daily barrage I get from punters on course who ask, ‘will it win?’. And hardly more ridiculous than those questions we get on an almost daily basis from Racing Post journalists who want ‘a line’ on our runners.
So how have we got ourselves into this mess. Of course, the media are partly to blame and there is a new breed of lazy scribes who would rather print opinion from trainers as if it were fact than put the effort into studying the form themselves. But the journalists, along with the public at large, were encouraged to believe in the value of inside information by the very authorities who manage and police the sport.
The BHA are just as likely as the Racing Post to publish misinformation and opinion as if it were fact and are even more likely than the media to misquote trainers, put words into jockeys mouths, or simply invent the ‘facts’.
I have long complained about the BHA instructions requiring trainers to give an explanation for perceived poor performances. Not only is the ruling wrong in principle but the way it is enforced and managed by stipendiary stewards and stewards’ secretaries is appalling.
Surely, before you can give an explanation for a poor performance, you must first establish that it is a poor performance and not the horse’s true form. That isn’t always easy to do and I would argue that, more often than not, the form is correct and shouldn’t be excused. It is virtually impossible to convince the authorities of this and, if they don’t like what you tell them, they will simply say that ‘the trainer could offer no explanation for the horse’s performance’.
A classical example of this occurred when Byres Road ran at Doncaster and finished last of five behind our own Soldier in Action and Juste Pour Nous, beaten 44 lengths. I did not believe this was a ‘poor performance’ and thought it was, quite simply, the horse’s true form – if form on heavy ground (officially described as ‘Soft’ but the race was run 13.25 seconds slow and times on the day ranged from 8.26 seconds slow over 6 furlongs to 14.5 seconds slow over a mile and a half) can ever be considered to be true. When the stipendiary steward enquired about what he and/or the stewards considered to be a poor performance, I told him that I have long been telling the handicappers that it is almost impossible for horses given a rating of 80 or more for performances on the All-Weather to carry that rating over to the turf and I use early season races at Doncaster as the example every time.
The race at Doncaster was a 0-95 handicap but, as it turned out, the top weight only had a rating of 84. Nonetheless, Byres Road was the only horse not to have previously run on turf. He gained his rating of 80 after running in two Maiden Auction races and a Maiden on the All-Weather. That is not to say that I believe he will be any less effective on turf but the Doncaster race was many classes above anything he had contested before. He ran well up to a point, leading for almost seven furlongs, but was the first horse beaten and, after that, his finishing position, in heavy ground, was irrelevant. I told the stipendiary steward all this but it was published on the BHA website that ‘the Stewards considered the running of BYRES ROAD, ridden by Franny Norton and trained by Mark Johnston, which finished unplaced. They noted the trainer could offer no explanation for the colt’s performance.’ Not true. I did offer an explanation but he chose to ignore it and what the public got was neither fact nor my opinion.
As it happens, Byres Road came out 11 days later and finished 2nd beaten ¾ of a length at Ripon in heavy ground. So I was wrong. Well, yes and no. The handicapper, as is so often the case, certainly wasn’t as far out as I had thought and was clearly right to ignore the Doncaster performance. But that does not mean that the horse was suffering from some physical ailment at Doncaster, had put in a poor performance, and had made a miraculous recovery by the time Ripon came around.
Most form students will, understandably, jump to the fact that the Doncaster race was over two furlongs further than Ripon but, interestingly, Byres Road was headed and beaten more than two furlongs out at Doncaster but was apparently struggling early in the race at Ripon and was running on very strongly at the finish.
So, what, with the huge benefit of hindsight, is the explanation? For a start, form on very soft ground is notoriously unreliable, distances are greatly extended, and finishing positions of horses which are the first to throw down the gauntlet and get beaten are irrelevant. These were different races, run at a different pace, and Byres Road didn’t get involved until near the finish at Ripon.
The one thing we know for sure is that the official ‘explanation’ given for Doncaster was not the one I gave. The stewards are misleading the public and, in doing so, are doing more harm than good to the reputation of our sport.