Earlier this week Ronan McNally got a record 12-year disqualification for regulation breaches that include breaking ‘Non-Trier’ rules to get horses handicapped favourably and telling others when they were ‘off’ or not.
It’s hard to dismiss the suspicion however that he was done, at least partly, for simply taking the piss.
The Armagh trainer is hardly a singular figure in wrong-footing the betting public through ways outlined by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board on Tuesday.
There are horses not trying very hard on a near daily basis in Ireland and Britain, just as there are people profiting by knowing all about it.
That doesn’t make it right. It is a fundamental deception that underlines how the policing of such deceit is vital to racing’s credibility. The problem is the sport’s structure makes such subterfuge all but inevitable.
What it says on racing’s tin is that all horses should run to achieve their best position. It’s a Utopian aspiration at odds with how the vast bulk of horses possess ordinary levels of talent and wind up running in handicaps. And where there’s a handicap edge to be had, there’s always temptation.
Profitably working to make sure there’s more under the bonnet than the handicapper realises is as old as betting itself. Plenty people relish such roguery too. Barney Curley’s legend proves it. There are plenty in the game who regularly conspire to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by exploiting the system. The depressing reality is that McNally didn’t do a lot out of the ordinary.
Where he came a cropper was not recognising an unwritten rule about the decorum around breaking those written rules. It revolves around not being too obvious, basically not taking the piss; but McNally was pretty blatant.
After his first 11 starts, the nearest Dreal Deal had got to winning was an eighth-place finish. Then he lined up in a hurdle at Navan in September 2020 off an official rating of just 84. A few months later, Dreal Deal was able to win a Grade Two race. In hindsight he was a ‘mortal lock’ at Navan.
He won like it too. Backed from 20-1 to 6-4 he won, as the saying goes, with his mouth open. On the racing channel, the various talking-head ‘geezahs’ practically needed oxygen they were laughing so much at such brazenness. And it’s often ridicule that gets up authority’s nose the most.
Other wins followed for a number of McNally horses that the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board described as “extraordinary improvements in their form and handicap ratings over a very short period of time”.
So began a lengthy investigation resulting in Tuesday’s penalties that have all but ended McNally’s short but colourful training career.
Inevitably there has been a backlash to such severe sanctions. It’s not hard to see why either, considering some of the penalties handed out in recent times to those engaged in far more sinister behaviour.
Many believe the IHRB has conveniently come down hard on a ‘little guy’ from the comparative backwater of Armagh rather than high-profile members of Irish racing not averse to pulling strokes of their own. Given a lot of regulatory history, it’s easy to understand such scepticism.
Persuading the sceptics they are wrong is the IHRB’s challenge. Perhaps McNally’s penalties will get reduced on appeal but what can’t be seen to decrease is the IHRB’s apparent new zeal to pursue those queering the pitch for everyone else. The regulator’s new benchmark must be lived up to.
Whatever the motivation, the IHRB’s investigation has set fresh standards in formulating a case and prosecuting it.
Particularly refreshing in Tuesday’s extensive report was a readiness to draw conclusions from what might be largely circumstantial evidence, perhaps not up to watertight High Court standards of proof, but still pointing in only one logical direction.
There was also the unprecedented move to retrospectively penalise trainers and jockeys for performances that race-day stewards deemed okay. Throwing out winners later found to have shown improved form is also a fresh statement of intent.
Maybe such a vigorous approach is due to the IHRB’s new sheriff in town with chief executive Darragh O’Loughlin having no background in the industry. But this new standard needs to be maintained and, crucially, applied across the board.
McNally and his accomplices might have been flagrant in their flouting of the rules but there are plenty others less cack-handed who are playing the same game with a lot more surreptitious success. Just because it isn’t as glaring doesn’t make it any less substantially wrong.
Handicaps by their nature encourage strokes and the nature of betting means there will always be those prepared to bend the rules of racing to breaking point. Perfection in such circumstances is illusory.
But if this is a first step in finally taking the regulatory fight to everyone fiddling the handicap system to suit themselves, it will be good for racing. Odds about it happening through are sure to vary.
Something For The Weekend
The ‘double green’ colours of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede are increasingly ubiquitous and may be central to a successful 10-minute period on Saturday.
El Fabiolo’s place in the pecking order among Willie Mullins’s quintet for the Goffs Arkle (2.30) at Leopardstown isn’t clear, but he is full of potential and could upset his stable companions.
Just 10 minutes later at Wetherby (2.40) O’Toole has finally got what he has always looked like wanting – three miles on decent ground – in a Grade Two chase. Like Ballygrifincottage he has a single chase run under his belt, but unlike the hotpot could be a value price.