Chris McGrath: Ground is real poser for Duke not spurious question of pacemakers
Saturday 06 September 2008
Until now, the governors of British racing have made a perfectly good job of developing their own, institutional paranoia. They have hired ex-policemen who seem convinced that there are reds under all our beds, credulous men who believe that "inside information" suppurates at the heart of the sport. Anyone who understands the game, of course, knows that the only thing that saves such "information" from being utterly worthless is its provision of an enticing, marketable veneer to the hopelessly capricious behaviour of thoroughbreds.
At the moment, however, the McCarthys of the Turf are busy enforcing a childish education programme on the nation's racehorse trainers. Unsurprisingly, this is causing considerable irritation among the professionals, who might well consider that the process urgently needs to be reversed.
This week, meanwhile, in a comical gesture of fairness, the security department instructed staff at the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) that they, too, must acknowledge their own potential to discover iniquitous advantages. Their cash bets are now limited to £20, and any win over £500 must be reported to their employers.
All in all, you would not think these people need any help in consolidating a culture of suspicion. Unbelievably, however, this week it seemed very much as though their hand was forced in the inane persecution of Aidan O'Brien and Colm O'Donoghue, who have been summoned to refute a charge of "team tactics" in Duke Of Marmalade's success at Newmarket a fortnight ago.
The raceday stewards saw nothing wrong in O'Donoghue's riding of the favourite's pacemaker, Red Rock Canyon, but a series of commentators subsequently begged to differ. In fairness, even the most sancti- monious were working with the BHA's own rules governing the use of pacemakers, which prohibit riders from any manoeuvre that favours another horse in the same ownership – even if it makes no difference to his own finishing position, or that of any rival.
This is perfectly ludicrous, of course. Any sensible observer will acknowledge the value of pacemakers, which are used by O'Brien, like everyone else, to maximise the chances of the race being won on merit. And when a pacemaker tires, his rider must obviously ensure he does not get in the way. It is not just po-faced, but ridiculous, for anyone to pretend that he should be indifferent to the position of his stablemate.
Equally clearly, he must take care not to impede another horse, but there are other rules that amply punish deliberate interference. As the Irish regulators wisely observed this week, there is no need for any rule against "team tactics" when you have others available – namely those concerning interference, running on your merits, and bringing the sport into disrepute. Yet the BHA, for some reason, has gone looking for trouble with this zero tolerance policy.
Unfortunately, this has enabled some pundits to take joyless exception to the way Ballydoyle deploys its pacemakers. It is not clear quite what they expected O'Donoghue to do at Newmarket, short of taking a sharp turn through the rails. Better still, perhaps he should overtly block Johnny Murtagh on the favourite, as a token of his extreme probity.
Much the best solution, O'Donoghue might well feel, would have been for his critics to "get a life". As it is, however, the BHA have painted themselves into a terribly awkward corner, and the most accomplished and professional stable in these islands will be justifiably outraged that its integrity is being formally challenged.
Funnily enough, the rematch between Duke Of Marmalade and New Approach at Leopardstown today has itself dovetailed the idiocies of those who discover sinister dimensions to every innocuous episode. Presumably, it was "inside information" that encouraged a client of Betfair to offer 3-1 against Duke Of Marmalade on Wednesday. Plainly somebody out there "knew" that he would not even be declared for the race, but Ballydoyle is always anxious to support the biggest all-aged race on Irish soil and, sure enough, he is an intended runner unless the conditions deteriorate unacceptably.
In the words of his trainer, Jim Bolger, New Approach was respectively too fresh and too rusty at either end of the Newmarket race. Not for the first time, he also looked rather inhibited on the fast ground, and he could prove a different horse in these conditions. Much as when he was beaten on firm going at the Curragh, before the Derby, he declined to give himself a hard race, and the intervening fortnight is going to have brought only one of these horses forward.
It proved misguided to expect New Approach to run as well at Newmarket, after an enforced break, as he did first time out in the Guineas. But in conditions potentially inimical to Duke Of Marmalade, he is given one more chance to prove himself an outstanding Derby winner.
It might seem foolhardy to make excuses for New Approach when his rival is so metronomic in his brilliance. Call it sophistry if you like. But that, after all, is central to the sport's appeal – this business that there is always more to a race than meets the eye. It is just that some people need to be reminded that this is actually a good thing.
Loco is sensible option on sand
The vile weather may cause the postponement of the day's biggest British prize – the Betfair Sprint Cup will go to Doncaster next week if Haydock fails its inspection – and has already made it impossible to bet on what would otherwise be a superb race for the Coolmore Matron Stakes at Leopardstown.
The sponsors contribute four fillies, notably Listen and You'resothrilling. Listen is proven on soft, but it is impossible to know what to expect after a long absence, while Halfway To Heaven, is untested in deep ground. She was fortunate at Goodwood to beat Lush Lashes, who ran her one bad race on heavy in the spring. Caribbean Sunset is thus the one filly whose fitness and aptitude in mud are proven.
Connections of Reverence (3.10) will be delighted if Haydock survives, but punters can find safer terrain on the all-weather at Kempton, where Square Eddie (next best 2.20) and Premio Loco (3.25) attract.
Three questions for Gerard Butler
The Newmarket trainer saddles Baharah against Lush Lashes in today's Matron Stakes.
1. What chance do you give Baharah at Leopardstown?
"She is a very good filly, and no mistake, and deserves a crack at a Group One prize. Unfortunately, this one looks exceptionally strong, so if she makes the frame I'll be thrilled. I'm concerned about testing ground, but a lot of American-bred horses don't mind a bit of juice underfoot. It makes for more of a grind, more like racing on dirt."
2. You made your name in Blewbury but moved to Newmarket this year. How are you settling in?
"It's the home of racing, and you see legends of the training profession at work every morning on the gallops. I probably should have come years ago, but I've no regrets and we're here now. Horses and trainer alike are finding their feet, and I'm off to the sales at Keeneland on Sunday in search of fresh blood."
3. You're a Manchester United fan with lots of experience in the Middle East. What did you make of football's craziest week?
"Football thinks it knows all about wealth but anyone in racing will tell you that the sheikhs can take things to a different level. I've been to Abu Dhabi and it's even more staggering than Dubai. It's going to interesting to see what happens at Manchester City. But just as you can see people spending lots of money in racing without success, it will all boil down to how things come together on the pitch. And, with Berbatov in red, somehow you know he's going to prove the real thoroughbred."
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