All Hail Atholl Duncan

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New BHA Chair Atholl Duncan

For a man who shares his first name with a Scottish Earldom and a surname with the kindly King who met a sticky end at the hands of Macbeth, you might have expected the new BHA Chair to have been unveiled with slightly greater fanfare. However, the announcement warranted no more than a few bland paragraphs on the BHA website and just to ensure we didn’t get too excited, the headline made it clear that the appointment was only on an interim basis.

The need for a new Chair of racing’s governing body goes back to May, when it was announced Steve Harman would be stepping down in November. This followed a suggested conflict of interest that Harman had. At the time the BHA assured us that they were not at war, but presumably in an attempt to avoid the fight, it was decided Harman would step down, but not yet. Oh, and there would still be a job for him in racing.

Whilst such a compromise might look like a lesson in the art of diplomacy, the time it has taken to elect a new Chair and then to only do so on an interim basis, has more than a hint of an organisation unsure of its next move. There has been no explanation  for the delay and I can’t help thinking that Macbeth hit the nail on the head when he said “‘twere well it were done quickly”. In regard to the appointment being without a fixed term, this is justified by the BHA on the grounds that there is an ongoing ‘constructive discussion’ about the constitution of the Board and role of the Chair.

I am sure such a debate is very worthy, but the problem is that now is precisely the moment the BHA should be seen to give its leader a strong and unambiguous mandate. As well as the Tote – the downfall of Duncan’s predecessor- there’s the new limit on FOTB’s in betting shops, the proposal to limit advertising on betting products until after the watershed, racecourses on the verge of bankruptcy and, of course, let’s not forget Brexit. There are dark forces gathering.

Mr Duncan appears well qualified for his new position, but is being asked to head his troops into battles which will have to be fought on many fronts, without clarity of his authority or knowing for how long he will be in the post.

Samcro – The Second Coming?

 

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Jack Kennedy rides Samcro to victory in the Ballymore at Cheltenham

Two things happened this week to prove that the seasons are finally changing and National Hunt enthusiasts will soon be able to rouse from the tedium of a hot summer and return to basking in the mud, rain and wind of winter jump racing. The first sign the barometer had shifted was the idiosyncratic Bank Holiday meeting at Cartmel being the most valuable card of the day.  Second was The Racing Post devoting the first three pages of its Tuesday edition to jump racing stories.

Perhaps inevitably the main headline featured Samcro. The Gordon Elliot trained six year old rightly started last season with much hype and went to the Cheltenham Festival unbeaten, where he won the Ballymore with relative ease. He then ventured out of Novice company at Punchestown and fell in the Champion Hurdle. There are those who say it was just a blip or even that supernatural forces were at play in County Kildare in April – Just ask Paul Townend who inexplicably steered Al Boum Photo clear of the final fence in the Champion Novice Chase or Gordon Elliot who saw an apparent unassailable lead in the Trainers’ Championship vanish in the blink of an eye.

All this seems to have been largely forgotten and to the question “Which horse are you most excited about this season?”, which is currently doing the rounds on social media, the overwhelming answer is “Samcro”.  Meanwhile the article in the Racing Post, focused not on if  he will have a successful season, but the dilemma facing owners Gigginstown, whether to keep him over hurdles or send him chasing – If you’re interested you can get 4/9 on the first run being over hurdles and 7/4 over fences. Ruby Walsh later joined the debate saying that “Samcro looks a chaser”. For what it’s worth, I think he will go chasing: It is in the Irish psyche to run any horse that is capable of staying and jumping over fences. The counter argument is that Gigginstown who have won just about everything else in the sport are still short of a Cheltenham Champion Hurdle Trophy in the cabinet and their desire to complete the set, might be too much of a temptation.

But perhaps we’re getting carried away with ourselves.  I don’t know where Samcro gained the title  “The second coming” from and whilst I’m not saying that he’s just a very naughty boy, I do question if he flatters to deceive. He is an exquisite  looking chestnut, who has an undoubted talent to go through the gears. And there is nothing more a punter loves than to see a horse they’ve backed come from off the pace only to cruise to the front in the final furlong and humiliate the rest of the field. However, was the Irish competition really that great leading up to the Cheltenham Festival? And whilst taking nothing away from the Ballymore victory, I wasn’t convinced by his jumping, particularly over the final hurdle. Then there was the Punchestown fall, when up against the big boys.  A blip it may have been, but at the very least it has asked more questions, that it has provided answers.

I may well be proved wrong in my doubts and will quite happily admit my mistakes should he go on to be a Gold Cup winner. But, whatever the season has in store for Samcro, I’m just excited that winter isn’t far away.

 

 

 

BHA V Timothy Brennan – In defence of the BHA

I tweeted on Wednesday that I thought Tom Brennan would be cleared by the BHA’s Independent Disciplinary Panel of the allegation of conspiring to commit a corrupt or fraudulent practice. I would like to be able to say that this was a conclusion reached through careful evaluation of the evidence. It wasn’t. As a solicitor who has made a modest living from litigation for over 20 years, it was no more than whatever the lawyer’s equivalent of a copper’s hunch is.

In simple terms the case against Mr Brennan was that as Willie Mullins’ vet he was privy to information that Faugheen wouldn’t run in Cheltenham’s 2016 Champion Hurdle. There was telephone record evidence of him then making a call to his brother, Michael, following which the sibling very promptly set up a bet fair account and began laying Faugheen, who was the 1-3 favourite, at odds between 1.49 and 1.98. The waters were slightly muddied by Michael Brennan’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation, resulting in his exclusion from the sport.

On the face it this looked like a strong prima facile case; A professional who may have some influence in a yard’s decision making regarding whether a horse runs or at the very least is likely to know privileged information, evidence of contact with a third party who then lays a horse at an extremely attractive price and all within a very short period of time.

Whilst the full judgment is yet to be published, what is clear now is how quickly the BHA’s case fell apart piece by piece, in the face of Mr Brennan’s heavyweight legal team. From the reports I have read, the turning point would seem to have been the evidence of Willie Mullins who said that the decision whether to run a horse was entirely his and the limit of the inner circle to whom this would be known – the stark choice was either to accept this evidence or find he was lying.

This has all led some of the great and the good in the racing press to doubt whether the proceedings should have been instigated  at all. The Guardian’s Chris Cook, who by far gave the best coverage of the hearing, described the case as circumstantial. Tom Kerr writing in the Racing Post  questioned whether  ‘a case as thin as this should ever have been brought’ and answered that it was dubious.

Both writers are undoubtedly learned in the field of racing, but I would suggest lack an understanding of litigation. Dealing with Chris Cook first, of whom I am fan, there is nothing flawed in a prosecution  based entirely on circumstantial evidence. There have been many unquestioned high profile convictions which have relied entirely on such evidence. It is for the Tribunal to establish its weight.

Turning to Tom Kerr, his grasp of law and procedure is frankly sub GCSE standard. He writes ‘The BHA’s case was built on too many assumptions to meet the burden of proof”. What he meant was the standard of proof – the burden was on the BHA to prove  the case and the standard was on the balance of probabilities. Even allowing for his schoolboy error, this standard of proof is short of what is required in the criminal courts (beyond reasonable doubt) and I know of no standard lower than on the balance of probabilities. He made it sound as if the BHA had a high hurdle to jump evidence wise – They didn’t.

In support of his conclusion that the decision to bring the case was dubious, Kerr also points out that Panel found Brennan to be a “credible and impressive witness over several hours of cross examination”. Well the point is, you never know how strong a witness is going to be until they give their evidence and there is an opportunity to challenge it. That’s the whole reason we have hearings with live evidence. It all smacks a bit of Kerr being wise after the event.

I have not always been the biggest defender of the BHA and I’m unesay the investigation took so long to be completed and the for the matter to come before the Panel, but I would support their decision to bring the case.  It is worth noting that the Panel  found the BHA had acted reasonably in instigating the enquiry. The alternative would have been to leave a lot of unanswered questions and a lingering sense that the BHA were at best not investigating suspicions of corrupt betting practices and at worst guilty of a cover up. Justice has now been done and seen to be done.  If it hadn’t, any criticism of the BHA would have been far more justified.

 

 

 

No More German Tongue Ties

I’ve just picked up from the ever informative ntf Muse blog, that as from 1st June tongue ties will be banned in all German Races. I must confess I know less than nothing about German racing and am, therefore, unable to comment about what has led to this decision in terms of research or evidence gathering. I make the assumption the rule has been imposed on welfare grounds, but from a cursory  internet search, I can’t see that Germany is more sensitive to horse welfare than any other racing country  – It seems to still allow the whip up to seven strikes in a race.

It will be interesting to see, not only if this is the start of a wider debate in Germany, but  if the issue of tongue ties is considered in other jurisdictions, because as far as I am aware it is not one which has ever been on the radar in Britain or Ireland.

BHA – Not “at war” apparently

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This is the letter from the BHA to the Racing Post, in response to its headline on Thursday –  “Civil war at BHA over future of chairman Harman”. The story appears to have hit the press from nowhere and I can find no evidence of the issues which have now come to light having been simmering away before making the front page two days running – Friday’s  headline  stating “Harman crisis deepens”. Its coverage has even overtaken the mass brawl at Goodwood and the Government’s announcement on maximum stakes for FOBT machines, which is expected next week.

On the face of it, you might be forgiven for thinking this isn’t earth shattering news. The allegation  appears to be that BHA chairman, Steve Harman, acted with a potential conflict of interest when he hosted Alizeti consortium chief executive, Alex Frost, at the Cheltenham Festival in March and introduced Frost to culture secretary Matt Hancock on Gold Cup day. The significance of this is that the consortium is in talks to buy a share of the Tote and it is reported that this led to a complaint to the BHA board by one of the racecourse representatives involved in Btitbet, which runs a pool betting project at 55 tracks in competition to the Tote.

The Racing Post reports that it is understood whilst a sub-group set up to investigate the matter found no conflict, some board members have now alleged Harman mislead the board regarding how the meetings had come about and had not corrected the suggestion that Frost was one of Hancock’s constituents. This resulted in a board meeting to debate whether he had brought the BHA or racing into disrepute. It will meet again next week.

It appears to me the real problem lies not with what Harman has or hasn’t done, but with the way it has been handled. BHA shareholders – the Racecourse Association, Racehorse Owners Association, Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and those representing trainers, jockeys and stable staff have expressed anger about the lack of disclosure of board developments. In traditional commercial structures this is the classic shareholder/ board battle, where the board says – we were appointed to do a job so let us get on with it and the shareholders say, we’ll hang on a minute we are the owners so we’re entitled to know.

The above letter, for which I grateful to https://ntfmuse.wordpress.com for publishing, refers to key concepts in the world of governance and regulation – due process, fairness and proportionality. However, the crucial one it has missed is – transparency. And until it appreciates the importance of this, I suspect the story won’t go away.

 

 

 

That was the season that was

It was largely a case as you were: Gordon Elliott went into the Punchestown Festival with a healthy lead in the Irish Trainers’ Championship, only to be overtaken by Willie Mullins again, who grabbed  the title for a twelfth time.  Nicky Henderson retained his crown in the British Trainers’ Championship as did Richard Johnson, as Britain’s Champion jockey.  There was a change in Ireland’s Champion jockey, with Davy Russell coming out on top, but only due to Ruby Walsh being sidelined through injury for much of the season.

Memories of Davy Russell’s four day ban for punching Kings Dolly in the back of the head before a Handicap Hurdle at Tramore in August, were all but forgotten by the time of his successes at the Cheltenham Festival; shortly after the death of his Mother of whom he spoke emotionally, tenderly and with gratitude.  Davy then went on to claim the Grand National for the first time, as the diminutive Tiger Roll held on by a head after a storming late charge from Pleasant Company.

Richard Johnson picked up a seven day ban for over use of the whip in his victory in the Gold Cup on Native River, in an epic duel with the reformed Might Bite. Also at the Cheltenham Festival Buveur D’Air,  who had been unbeaten without a test all season, proved he could also win in a proper contest, when he retained the Champion Hurdle Trophy beating Melon by  a neck. Another Nicky Henderson horse, Altior, looked out of it in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but through some skilful navigation from Nico de Boinville, triumphed by seven lengths from Min.  He now adds that to his Supreme Novices’ and Arkle wins.

However, whatever moments of glory British Trainers experienced at the Festival, Ireland retained the Prestbury Cup with still more than a day left ;which probably says more about the Mullins/Elliott juggernauts than it does about the strength of Irish racing. The cold statistics are that if Mullins had started the Punchestown Festival without a Euro in prize money, he would have still come second in Irish Champion Trainers’ title race and he even found time to come sixth in the British Table.

But there was so much more to the season.  The victory for North Devon trainer, Richard Woollacott, with Beer Goggles against a class field in the Newbury Long Distance Hurdle reminded me of all the reasons I love this sport; whilst Richard’s death at the age of forty less than nine weeks later, put it in perspective. There was no more emotional scene at Aintree in April when Lalor followed up his Bumper win their last season with a Grade 1 triumph in the Top Novices’ Hurdle for Richard’s widow, Kayley, who took on the licence.

Bryony Frost lit up the season like no other jockey, with her enthusiasm, infectious smile and notable rides. The biggest win of her career came on Present Man in the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton, but the enduring story was her rides on Black Corton. A horse that spent the summer at Worcester, Fontwell and Newton Abbot, went on to success at Kempton, Ascot and twice at Cheltenham. With two of the greats Nina Carrberry and Katie Walsh announcing their retirement at the end of the season, both going out on highs, and Lizzie Kelly winning at Cheltenham at Trials Day and the Festival, it won’t won’t be long before we just talk about jockeys, without the prefix “women”.

The loveable grey, Bristol De Mai, followed victory in  the Charlie Hall Chase by a distance win over Cue Card in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. The critics said that he was no more than a flat track mud lark and I wanted them to be wrong. But it proved to be the peak of his season.  Another seven year old grey, Politilogue, started by bagging the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter and looked for a while as if he could be one of the big players in the two mile Chase division. However, he was disappointing in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, although found some redemption over two and a half miles in the Melling Chase at Aintree.

Un De Sceaux proved he was still at the peak of his powers, making it a hat trick of Clarence House Chase titles, and completed the season with only one blip, when running second to Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

At the tender age of sixteen James Bowen won the Welsh Grand National on Raz De Maree and finished Britain’s top conditional jockey. Cue Card finally retired.

Some spoke of the end of season finale at Punchestown  as being better than Cheltenham. It certainly wasn’t without excitement or controversy. Paul Townend’s steering of Al Boum Photo to avoid the final fence in the Champion Novice Chase and taking out of Finian’s Oscar in the process, was all the more inexplicable by the silence of both stewards and jockey.    Townend eventually explained that he thought he heard a voice telling him to miss the fence and apologised. Suggestions that he wouldn’t be up to riding the following day could not have been wider of the mark, when he secured a treble.

The biggest cheer of the week at Punchestown was reserved for Faugheen, whose even most evangelical disciples were conceding was a spent force. Reinventing  himself as a three mile hurdler,  he bolted up in the Champion Stayers’ by thirteen lengths.

While Britain started its end of season seven day break from the jumps, many jockeys found the lure of Kilbeggan too great and continued their racing in Ireland.  And for those of us this side of the Irish Sea there’s the Hunter Chase Evening at Cheltenham tomorrow and jumping at Uttoxeter on Saturday. Bring it on.

 

 

 

 

Faugheen The Well Oiled Machine

Faugheen laps it up at Punchestown’s Stayers Hurdle

Remember Faugheen the Machine? The horse that, save for a second at Punchestown in November 2015, notched up 12 consecutive victories, which included the Neptune and Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Then came a lay off for the best part of two years. Returning in the Grade 1 Unibet Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November 2017, he won beating Jezki by 16 lengths and it looked like a case of as you were, with any maintenance work having been successfully carried out.

What followed, however, suggested it might have only been a temporary repair – Pulled up at Leapordstown,  then second to Supasundae at the same track and a lacklustre 6th in this year’s Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Now aged 10, whatever his component parts, he couldn’t be described as a time machine.

Watching him work last Sunday,  Mullins said that he looked at Ruby Walsh and they both thought “That’s him gone”.  Mullins with if not both, had at least on hand on the Trainers’ Championship by Wednesday night and had no need to throw the dice, but said “We were always going to take a chance and run him though”, describing it as a “sort of last chance saloon”. It’s an establishment that Faugheen clearly enjoyed, winning commandingly by 13 lengths in the Punchestown Stayers Hurdle, over a distance he hadn’t contested since being a five year old Novice. He looked back to his best and probably received the biggest cheer of the week.

There’s now talk of sending him Novice chashing next season. I’ll raise a glass to that, because the thing about the last chance saloon is there is always time for one more drink.