The race was a mare’s handicap hurdle, on a midweek card, at a middle-ranking British racecourse, but that is incidental; it could have been a low-grade handicap anywhere in Britain or Ireland, any day of the week. The interesting part is the coded language of deceit. Or deception. Is one worse than the other?
In their preview, the two Racing TV presenters on track fancied a horse that, in the words of one of them, had been “ridden negatively” on its last run, buried at the back of the field. In other words, not trying a yard. Could they say that out loud? The phrase that comes to mind was immortalised by Francis Urquart, the Machiavellian Tory chief whip in the original House of Cards: “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.”
In the event, the race was won by a horse who had finished last in his previous run, beaten by 35 lengths in a contest that the Racing TV presenters said was “weaker” than the race he had just won. “He looked a different horse today,” said one of them. “Eh, yes,” the other said, channelling his inner Urquart. “That is the best way of putting it.”
If you follow racing, you will know the code, and the signals, and the terms of engagement. You will also know the sick feeling in your stomach when you realise, halfway through a race that you’ve already lost your money on a horse that isn’t being ridden to win. More fool me for having a bet? Well, yes; but that’s not the point. Is it outlandish to hope that the rules should allow even fools a measure of protection? All right, don’t answer that.
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Attempting to cheat the system is institutionalised in the game. “Cheat” is a coarse word, but any of the softer alternatives would be a pitiful euphemism. Under the rules of racing, every horse is obliged to “run on its merits” to “obtain the best possible finishing position”. Like every other utopian ideal, it is incompatible with reality.
The handicappers are smart and sharp and highly experienced people, but they have the devil’s own job
Racing’s relationship with dishonesty is an outcome of how the game is played. The vast majority of horses will end up as middling handicappers, or worse, and most handicap races are won by horses whose handicap mark fails to capture the full extent of their ability. The industry phrase is “being ahead of the handicapper”. How can that be done while scrupulously adhering to the rules of racing? With difficulty.
The handicappers are smart and sharp and highly experienced people, but they have the devil’s own job trying to distinguish between horses that won’t ever be any good and horses that will come alive when their handicap mark is deemed favourable by their connections. Race day stewards are designed to be the first line of defence, but they have an unenviable task too when the practice of horses not running on their merits is so endemic in certain types of races.
It doesn’t have to be blatant; in fact, the trick is to disguise it. A horse’s chance can be neutralised by running it on ground it doesn’t like, or over an unsuitable trip, or when it’s not fully fit. In all of these cases it might look like the horse is doing its best when, in fact, it had no chance. Trying to police that carry-on is incredibly challenging.
Around the industry, though, nobody takes a pious view about this kind of stuff. Can anybody claim they are entirely without sin? Everybody knows how the little wheels turn. Only a tiny fraction of the horse population will ever be good enough to run in top-level races, so the vast majority of trainers depend on turning moderately talented horses into jobbing handicappers. That is a cut-throat, low-yield environment and a crowded field.
Every so often, though, a case comes along that is such a threat to the reputation of the industry that everyone is up in arms. Three weeks ago, the trainer Ronan McNally was carpeted by a referrals panel of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory after a long and exhaustive investigation.
Among their conclusions was that McNally had achieved “a pattern of improvement in form of horses at a level previously unfamiliar to experienced and long-serving handicap officials”.
The panel also said it has been proved that McNally conspired with point-to-point handler Ciarán Fennessy “to engage in a corrupt and fraudulent practice in relation to the passing of inside information for betting purposes and/or concealing the true ability of horses in order to obtain handicap marks not reflective of their ability”.
McNally said that he was “deeply disappointed” with the findings and would “almost certainly appeal”.
In any other line of business, though, what Curley did that day would be described as fraud
In general terms, though, racing people love a plot. The late Barney’s Curley’s famous Yellow Sam coup at Bellewstown in 1975 has been immortalised in books and television documentaries, and is celebrated still on its anniversary. Curley skinned the bookies for over £300,000, which would amount to about €2 million in today’s money.
In any other line of business, though, what Curley did that day would be described as fraud. According to the form book, Yellow Sam was the worst horse in the race, which was neither here nor there when the money was down. On the day of the race the horse’s starting price was protected by a communications blackout, orchestrated by Curley. The only phone box at the track was occupied for nearly half an hour by a friend of his, pretending to phone a hospital about the wellbeing of a fictional aunt.
The man who stood in the phone box was described by Curley years later as a “heavily built kind of fellow, a tough sort who you wouldn’t want to get into an argument with. But he had great integrity.” Integrity? His walk-on part was integral to the fraud. But because nobody has an ounce of sympathy for bookies, Curley was lionised as a champion punter.
For all of us who are glued to the game and are mad about it and like a flutter, there is an ignored contradiction at its centre: we’re furious when we realise we’ve backed a horse that’s not trying, and delighted to be told about a horse that has “a stone in hand” on the handicapper.
That hypocrisy is part of the game. Take it or leave it.