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Nethercott Manor Farm

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Beer Goggles relaxing after Friday’s victory

I remember reading about an author who spent some time with Roy Hodgson, in order to research the character of a football manager who featured in a novel he was working on. The problem was that all Roy Hodgson wanted to talk about was Irish literature so the writer came away with little insight.

It wasn’t quite like that when I spent this morning with South Molton trainer, Richard Woollacott, at Nethercott Manor Farm.  However, having done his research he knew of my interest in politics and Richard was as keen to discuss political issues with me, as I was to hear about training horses from him.  But without a doubt, I learnt more from a short time in his company than I would from hours of watching races and studying the form book.

Richard was as generous with his time, as he was engaging and open. He also exercised an admirable patience in answering my series of what must have appeared very stupid questions.  I got to meet Grade 2 winner Beer Goggles, who now looks set for the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January and the beautiful Born to Size, for whom there are understandable high hopes. Unfortunately the last remaining share in him was not within my budget.

I watched how a riderless horse dramatically responds to quite subtle body language from a trainer and then stood in the middle of the barn as the horse completed a series of jumps around me. What struck was how much closer I felt to him and how better I could study his movements in this naked environment, when compared to the bustle of a race track.

I suggested to Richard that Brereton’s fall, in his only runner at Ludlow yesterday, must have brought them back down to earth after Beer Goggles’ win at Newbury on Friday. He responded philosophically: “There are far more downs than there are ups”. They have Jepeck running tomorrow at Exeter, a horse I remember from his Pointing days, and I wish another up for him and his team.

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at harry through Beer Goggles?

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Unowhatimeanharry wins the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January

I’ve got a bit of a thing about Unowhatimeanharry. It goes back to when he won the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in 2016. Until yesterday, he had only lost once since being with Harry Fry. Whilst that one blip was the big one- the Stayers’ Hurdle at this year’s Festival- he quickly bounced back at Aintree and Punchestown.

What I’ve never understood is why the media have such a downer on him. The Racing Post’s David Jennings described him as a fraud, which seems a strange noun to attach to a horse. He’s been criticised for only doing enough to win, which I’ve always found makes for an exciting finish. When the critics are then faced with the reality of his success, the response is that there aren’t any good staying hurdlers to compete against , but you can do no more than dominate your division.

The Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury yesterday, which is as good an early trial for the Stayers’ Hurdle as you will find, was on paper a straight race between harry and Thistlecrack.  What no one factored in was that 40/1 shot Beer Goggles, who had never run in such illustrious company, would boss the race from start to finish and was more than a worthy winner. The pundits were as quick to praise the run as they were to highlight how they were proved right about harry’s limitations. There was very little: “What on earth happened to Thistlecrack?”  who finished a distant fifth.

I didn’t resent Beer Goggles his victory one bit: I love an outsider and he is from a stables local to me. Those I know who work for Rich Woollacott or own horses he trains, speak highly of him as a trainer and describe him as a good chap.

I also have to accept that at the age of nine, harry might be getting to the stage where the best will soon be behind him. However, the more negative comments he attracts, the more loyal I feel and determined to defend him.

 

 

BHA V Philip Hobbs

As someone whose pleasure is watching jump racing and makes their modest living from practising law, I have what some might consider an unhealthy interest in studying the decisions of the BHA’s Disciplinary Panel. Reading the Panel’s judgments and those of the Appeal Board, which are all published on the BHA website, is my definition of a good night in.

Among some of the least interesting reports concern cases brought for breaches of Rule (G) 2.1, of which there are many.  They usually go something like this:

A horse tests positive for a prohibited substance following a race. An investigation is conducted which includes a visit to the trainer’s stables and it is concluded the presence of the substance is the result of cross contamination from a  member of staff working with the horse, who had been taking the drug themselves quite legitimately –  If you want to read one the more unusual cases, you can do no better than look at the proceedings against Dean Ivory, where it was found the prohibited substance was probably transferred due to a work rider who had been taking Tramadol urinating in the stable while mucking out.

At the hearing the trainer tends not to appear, but accepts the allegation on the basis it is a strict liability offence, which is sent with written submissions. The disqualification of the horse and forfeiture of the prize money is mandatory, but the Panel then have to consider whether to impose a penalty. The test is if all reasonable precautions had been taken to avoid violating Rule 2.1. In all the cases I can find of accidental transfer from a worker, the Panel find that they hadn’t and impose a fine usually of around £1000.

On the face of it the hearing against Philip Hobbs on 10th August looked like it would follow the usual pattern.  Keep Moving had tested positive for a prohibited substance, Cetirizine, following a Chase at Ludlow. Mr Hobbs didn’t attend, but admitted the breach in his absence and the inevitable disqualification and forfeiture of prize money  followed. However, what made this case different is that  after a visit to his stables, which were found to be in “excellent condition”, no source of the prohibited substance could be discovered by the investigators.  It came within the bracket of what are called the “mystery cases”.

The learned Mr Graham Gilbert representing the BHA argued for a penalty, essentially on the grounds that in the absence of a central register in which staff listed their medication, all reasonable precautions had not been taken.  Following an exchange between Mr Gilbert and the Chair on the burden and standard of proof, which would interest only the most academic of lawyers,  The Panel dismissed the submissions and no penalty was imposed.

Not content with the outcome, the BHA decided to appeal the decision on what they described as a point of principle.  And that I would suggest was tactically their first mistake. My experience is that you should think very carefully before pursuing an appeal on a point of principle and if you do, pick the right case against the right opponent – Philip Hobbs’ stables were described as being in excellent condition, the drug was one not subject to an outright prohibition (only on raceday) and there was no history of his horses having testing positive for  Cetirizine- This was the wrong fight against the wrong person. Secondly, the BHA  put its  Appeal on the basis it sought no more than a nominal penalty. As the Appeal Board said “That means, say 5 pence, which in reality is no penalty” As opening shots go this placed the BHA on the back foot and a stance the Appeal Board described as “surprising and we are bound to say that we find it incongruous”. Having started with a misaimed blow, what followed reads like an intellectual punishment beating of the BHA’s finest legal minds by the Board, as humiliating as it is brutal. The appeal was dismissed.

Having lost the battle, the BHA remained determined not to be defeated and resorted to the nuclear option, announcing in a press release on 23rd November that it would seek to amend the rules. The statement was dressed up by saying this was only part of a significant re-writing of the Rules of Racing which it had already embarked on.  This strikes me as the BHA again acting incongruously, as it has all the hall marks of a knee jerk reaction.

I should say I believe the BHA to be a fairly decent regulatory body – I’ve certainly known far worse – and I have written positively about it on this blog. On this occasion, however, I find it difficult to defend its actions. The Panel and Appeal Board is there for a purpose and you can’t simply change the rules because you don’t like their decisions. To do so is to act as a dictator and we all know what happens to the judiciary in a dictatorship.

 

Bristol De Mai’s Day

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Bristol De Mai on his way to victory by 57 lengths

The ITV Racing team informed us with certainty that it’s pronounced “may” and not “my”; although Tony McCoy continued to say “my” – But hey, no one wants to contradict a knighted record champion jockey with a slightly prickly personality.

Correct pronunciation was about as committed as the ITV presenters would get about Bristol De Mai who won the Betfair Chase yesterday by 57 lengths. Whilst acknowledging this was probably a record margin of victory in a Grade 1 race, such praise was equally tempered by implications that he was no more than a course specialist and Mick Fitzgerald’s reference to him being a mudlark, sought to emphasise his limitations rather than a truly great performance. There was also the back story which had been running since the earlier Opening Show, that the race was all the poorer for the absence of Sizing John.

There maybe some truth in the experts’ analysis, but what struck me was the reluctance to celebrate an astonishing run in the first Grade 1 race of the season this side of the Irish Sea, from a horse that is still only six.

I suspect there were two things at play. Firstly, that the narrative hoped for was a battling win by the nation’s favourite, Cue Card, who would then be lined up for a shot at the Triple Crown- Any hope of Bristol De Mai winning this elusive title was effectively dismissed by the pundits.  Secondly, that it probably didn’t make for great telly.  Such was the distance between Bristol De Mai and the rest, the camera team were left with the option of having only the leader in shot or the chasing pack. As Bristol De Mai headed for the winning line, the camera did briefly pan back and catch Tea For Two, staggering over a fence looking exhausted.

When asked about the horse being a course specialist after the race, winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies had to remind the interviewer that Bristol De Mai had won the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby earlier in the month. Unlike yesterday that race, which was also on ITV, had an exciting finish, but what was the main story to have come out of it? Oh yes, it was Cue Card- who fell.

 

Wind Ops- A lot of hot air?

An extraordinary number of column inches have been written today about the BHA’s new rule regarding the declaration by trainers of horses who have had wind surgery. The change will come into force on 19th January 2018 and will apply to previously raced horses, making their first run after certain types of wind surgery.  The BHA has confirmed data will be made available for publication on Race Cards, with horses having “WS” next to their name. So far so good. But what appears to be a fairly limited change has sharply divided opinion amongst  various stakeholders.

Some have chosen to link the announcement with Nicky Henderson and Altiorgate.  Let’s be clear, the two issues are not connected.  Altior related to Nicky Henderson saying on At The Races last Monday that Altior was “totally on target” for the Tingle Creek, only to write in his Unibet blog on Wednesday that his horse would miss the race due to a wind operation.  To be fair to Henderson, he has given a detailed and credible explanation regarding the two apparently contrary statements. This has to do with how trainers’ statements influence markets and to some extent their financial relationships with bookmakers by writing for their websites.

The BHA change wasn’t drafted on the back of a fag packet overnight as a knee jerk reaction and was the result of a lengthy consultation, although perhaps the timing was always going to confuse the two stories.

One of main objections to the obligatory disclosure is that with such information being in the public domain it will push down the price of top horses in the bloodstock market. Frankly I don’t understand this argument: I wouldn’t consider investing even a modest sum of money in a horse, unless I was confident I had full details of its medical history and heritage. In any event, I would guess that the hugely inflated Irish market is not in any way driven by lack of information about wind surgery.  Rather it’s about three men who are willing to pay obscene amounts of money for a horse and think nothing of forking out £250,000 on the back of one win in a fairly obscure point to point.

Responses from individual trainers have been mixed, but their Union, The National Trainers’ Federation (NTF), has expressed concerns in a press release today, where it didn’t mince its words.  It questions how the rule is to be policed, highlighting that some surgery cannot be detected post operatively and the disadvantage to British based trainers, without reciprocal requirements in Ireland and France. My view is that if the BHA  leads the way then all credit to them and I suspect others will follow. As someone who makes their living in the law, I don’t buy into the “it can’t be policed” line. A rule is either right or it’s not and where there is a will to enforce it, my experience is that a way can be found.

The main thrust of the NTF’s stance is that there is not enough data to establish how different types of wind surgery effect a horse’s performance and as such the information which now has to be disclosed is of limited, if any, value to the public. In bringing about the change without an “evidence based approach”, the NTF accuses the BHA of “poor regulation”. Whether this is annoyance at the BHA choosing to listen to the voice of The Horseracing Bettors Forum above their own or part of a larger hidden agenda, I don’t know.  However,  punters already make many assessments based on information for which there probably aren’t any evidence based conclusions. We know when a horse has a tongue strap or is a first time cheek piece wearer and such details may be factored in when attempting to pick a winner. If we can now add to that information about wind surgery, over time we can make our own judgment regarding how that might infuence a run.

As the BHA said this is about transparency and I would find it hard to argue against that. The more transparency there is the better, not just for the gambler but the industry as a whole. So let’s congrtaulate the BHA, but there’s still work to be done.  The sport needs to be even more open, for the benefit of us all.

 

 

 

 

Ginge Wins while Youth make a Splash

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 James Bowen adds a bottle of champagne to the collection

The chirpy weatherman on The Racing Post video who assured us there would be no more than a millimetre of rain at Cheltenham yesterday, would appear at best to have been misinformed. From arrival until leaving it didn’t stop and the only change in the sky being between shades of grey.  Such conditions did nothing to dampen the spirits of more than 30,000 race goers who attended Prestbury Park for BetVictor Gold Cup Day.

Nor did it lessen the enthusiasm of our group of three making our first collective visit of the season to Cheltenham. We operate under an established structure where each has defined roles-I’m the banker – and a type of race to pick the winner in – I’m the hurdles man. All money is pooled and a stake agreed. Our backing expert then elbows his way through the crowd, while studying the bookies’ boards to ensure best odds are achieved. It’s fair to say my friends take a more analytical approach to selections than me; our most learned member will look you in the eye and tell you with evangelical conviction that the spread sheet is the greatest invention known to man.

I couldn’t see past Gumball in the Juvenile Hurdle, but opted for Eragon De Chanay as the value bet. The unexposed Apple’s Shakira romped home and was quickly installed as  favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. The selection in the Novices’ Chase fell to our backing expert and the money went on West Approach, in a depressingly small field of three. We found ourselves still without a winner, but it is was hard to resent the increasingly impressive Bryony Frost victory on Black Corton. Still only 22, Bryony’s smile when returning a winner is always a sight to lift even the most down cast of spirits. Black Corton is now unbeaten in five and looks like a decent punt at 25/1 for the RSA.

The Spreadsheet King, whose real name is Martin, selected Perfect Candidate in the BetVictor Handicap Chase. I don’t know how he picked out the 9/1 winner, who to me looked to have no form at all, but I guess that’s why he has a PhD and I don’t.

Our backing expert, Mark, picked Tully East for the Gold Cup and set off to place the money.  Whilst negotiating the crowd, Martin mentioned Splash Of Ginge. His name had been raised on the journey up and we all had a Splash Of Ginge story – mine centered on a conversation I had with a particularly vocal redheaded Irish woman in a packed train, whilst on my way to the Festival in March. In a clear breach of all our established governance rules, it was agreed we would have £5 each way on the outsider. Having delivered instructions to Mark, he then through skilful navigation secured the bet at 40/1. For a while it looked as if both our on the nose and each way bets would provide returns and it wasn’t until two from home, that I fully appreciated Splash Of Ginge might actually win. By this stage Martin was in a state of animation that denied any signs of the hangover he had earlier confessed to be nursing. We all know anything can happen on that final gruelling climb to the winning line at Cheltenham, but approaching it in the lead, he held on. Just.

Mark reported that receiving our winnings was a rare exchange with a bookmaker, where both participants were pleased with the outcome and having previously been spotted collecting on a 9/1 winner, found himself being asked for tips on his return to the enclosure.

Success didn’t follow in the listed Handicap Hurdle, where victory went to the short priced favourite, Thomas Campbell. His rise in weight from recent victory at Cheltenham, was largely wiped out by 16 year old, James Bowen, riding on his final day of having a 7 lb claim. I watched young James politely receive a bottle of champagne  as the winning jockey, even though he’s not old enough to consume it. I suspect by the time he is legally allowed to drink, he will have quite a collection.

I’m not sure even the greatest master of the spreadsheet, could have picked the winner in the impossibly tricky Intermediate Handicap Hurdle, but we managed to come out evens with an each way return on Mischievous Max.

There was little science in our selection in the Bumper, where we backed Dory largely on the basis of “That Warren Greatrex, he’s rather good at Bumpers, isn’t he”. Looking to have every chance until the final furlong, he quickly faded, with favourite Posh Trish finishing a comfortable winner.

As I sat in the back of the car on the journey home, digesting a post race curry and a decent amount of celebratory wine; in the front conversation progressed from spreadsheets to databases and pivot tables. What I didn’t say was that I thought our success was probably largely due to it being a day when the Racing Gods chose to smile down on us, through a leaden Cheltenham sky.

 

Novice Chases Revisited

I recently posted about the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) changes to the rules regarding Novice Chases. Often attracting only very small fields, the problem was identified as trainers being put off by what they considered a disproportionate rise in weight by the handicapper, when their horse had finished anywhere near a half decent winner.

The BHA working group didn’t seem to accept that there was any evidence to support the trainers’  view, but concluded that perception can be as important as reality. Therefore , in response the BHA stopped any rating increase in weight for age Novice Chases of Class 2 and below.  The rule does not apply to horses who have run less than four times over either obstacles or the winner.

The issue was picked up on by Joe McNally in his excellent Lazybet Blog writing about Monday’s meeting at Kempton, where the Novice Chase was contested between two horses and the Graduation Chase (which is really just a variation on the Novice Chase theme)  also being literally a two horse race.

I was also struck by trainer, Jamie Snowden’s comments when watching him interviewed at Cheltenham’s Showcase meeting following Double Treasure’s victory in the Royal Gloucestershire’s Hussars Novices’ Chase. Obviously pleased to have won, it was interesting, however, that one of his first remarks was expressing a hope that the handicapper wasn’t casting too watchful an eye. Whilst this was probably at least partially influenced by Double Treasure losing his Novice status on 31st October and having to find new categories of races to run, the point is that it isn’t just non winners who perceive  the handicapper’s over exuberance.

The changes came in at the beginning of October, on a trial basis. When I wrote few weeks later, I concluded the jury was still out whether the  problem had been correctly identified. My view now is that even if it has, the changes probably haven’t gone for enough to alter perceptions, whether they be justified or not. And it is ultimately the perception that counts. As for the jury, on recent evidence, I suspect it is not too long before a unanimous verdict is returned.