Things We Learned » Times a changin’

Times a changin’

Last weekend’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby experiment was, at worst, a qualified success and, at best, a brave and bold step that heralded a whole new vista for Irish racing.  The reality was that it was probably somewhere in between, but that is not at all bad.

Plenty of elements conspired against the attendance figure on the day.  The, er, elements for starters.  The intermittent rain that dampened the morning and early afternoon was no ally to the lads who were trying to convince their more sensible halves to put on their red shoes and dance the Derby dance.  Then there were the Camelot doubts, the prospect of the Irish Derby without Camelot, Hamlet without the prince.  And there was the Derby itself, a five-runner Derby, the smallest field in a hundred years.

There were positives though.  There was the prospect of seeing Camelot (the aforementioned prince) in the flesh on an Irish racecourse for the first time in almost a year, and there was Ronan Keating.

It is difficult to isolate the variables, it is difficult to know by how much the attendance figure was influenced by Camelot or by RK or by the move from a Sunday afternoon to a Saturday evening or by the fact that the race didn’t clash with Kildare v Meath in the Leinster semi-final, but the attendance figure was up on last year’s, and that was good news.  It was only about 500 up on a total of over 22,000, it was only just over 2% up, but the important thing was that the attendance figure didn’t fall.

The real benefit from the move to a Saturday was always going to be in RTE’s viewership figures, simply because more people watch television on a Saturday evening than on a Sunday afternoon.  And sure enough, the news came through on Monday afternoon that last year’s figure of an average of 66,000 had been blown out of the water by this year’s figure of an average of 175,000.  If you are still talking percentages, you are talking about a 165% increase, and that is significant in any walk of life.

It is important now that the opportunity that this development presents is fully exploited.  There is an opportunity now to communicate with a peripheral audience, educate them gently, present to them some of the breadth and depth of Irish racing, so much more than just from starting stall to winning post and what to back, what’s going to win.  It is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.


The blinkers issue raised its head again at The Curragh on Saturday when, in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, the highest-profile flat race on the Irish racing calendar, according to the printed press, the John Oxx-trained Born To Sea was sporting blinkers for the first time.

If you have been following this saga closely, of course, you know that Born To Sea wore a hood on Saturday, not blinkers.  The objective of the hood was to help the colt settle, which is quite the opposite to a trainer’s normal goal when he fits a set of blinkers.  Born To Sea’s hood was the same hood (probably) that he wore in the Irish 2000 Guineas and in the St James’s Palace Stakes, so he was, in fact, racing in a hood for the third time, not in blinkers for the first time.

In fairness to John Oxx, he was at pains to point out to the public that the horse was wearing a hood, not blinkers, but there is no way that the trainer’s notification would have reached all racegoers, all punters, all concerned parties.  Nor should there have been a need for the trainer to engage in such endeavours.  A simple h instead of a b in the press would have done that.  Surely it can’t be that difficult a technical alteration for the authorities to implement.

Here’s the other strange thing.  When Born To Sea wore a hood for the first time in a race in the Irish 2000 Guineas, the notation in the press on the day (b1) indicated that he was wearing blinkers for the first time.  That notation has since been changed in his form to reflect the fact that he was actually wearing a hood for the first time (h1).

All very fine, at least the colt’s back form is accurate now, even if the notation was incorrect on the day of the race.  However, on Saturday in the Irish Derby, five weeks after the Guineas, same horse, same problem, same error.  Instead of a h to reflect the fact that Born To Sea was set to wear a hood, he gets a b again.  And because his previous b has since been changed to a h, he gets a b1, first-time blinkers.


Knowledge gap

The blinkers v hood issue, of course, is a tiny issue in the broad scheme of things, but it is just another one of those little nuances of horse racing that is difficult to learn, difficult to find out about.  Just another one of those little things that make the barrier to entry for newbies that little bit stronger.  (See opportunities to educate above.)

There are lots of them.  Like the handicapping system, the upside-down handicapping system, the fact that the draw goes low-to-high left-to-right on the straight track at The Curragh whereas it used to go low-to-high right-to-left, the fact that you lose your money if you back a non-runner ante post, unless, of course, the horse was ballotted out as opposed to withdrawn.

Rule 4 deductions (what are they and why are they?), is this one-mile race run on the round course or the straight course (and why?), why do three-year-olds receive a weight allowance when the objective of a Group 1 race is to determine who the fastest horse is, pacemakers, riders’ claims, 24-hour declarations or 48-hour declarations, each-way 1/4 the odds or 1/5 the odds a place and why, first three or first two or first four, and how come every bookmaker who was betting ante post on the Irish Derby last week offered just two places, even though there were 11 horses in the race?

I think I’ll follow soccer instead.  (How complicated can the off-side rule be?)

British book

Interesting industry development on Wednesday across the water.  In a deal that is estimated to be worth an average of £8 million per year to British racing over the next five years, Betfair have agreed to pay to British racing 10.75% of their revenues from their British customers’ betting on British racing.  As well as the actual net revenue to British racing, this deal bears testimony to the fact that the betting exchange and the authorities – under the stewardship of the BHA’s continually impressive still-relatively-new CEO Paul Bittar – can sit down and work out an agreement that is mutually acceptable.

Contrast with Ireland.  There was a voluntary agreement in place between 2006 and 2008, under which Betfair contributed 10% of all revenues on Irish racing – not just revenues from Irish customers on Irish racing – to Irish racing, and which saw the betting exchange contribute a total of €3.3 million in three years.

The agreement was discontinued for some reason after 2008.  Irish racing has consequently lost out on a minimum of €1.2 million per year since then, at a time when it can ill-afford to miss out on any potential revenue.  Irish racing is also losing out on sponsorship revenue from Betfair, as well as the significant marketing spend that was certain to accompany the major sponsorships.  It doesn’t make sense.

Unusually, we should be taking a leaf out of the British book on this one.

Iron horse

If Ryan Sheridan were a horse, he wouldn’t be Desert Orchid or Dawn Run or Vintage Crop or Ardross, he would be Joey (War Horse).  Ryan played on at Fairyhouse on Tuesday evening even though the race meeting was postponed because the track was “absolutely saturated”.  The first violin on The Titanic wouldn’t have a look in.

© The Irish Field 5th July 2012