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Johnny Ward: The Dundalk controversy that has Irish horse racing talking

Events of last Friday, which involved a 1-2 for trainer Denis Hogan, have been referred to the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board.

A view from Dundalk racecourse last Friday.
A view from Dundalk racecourse last Friday.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

RACING RUSHED TO a halt, along with every sport Tuesday, yet this has been a remarkable week for the sport.

Last Friday, we had the most talked-about claiming race ever run in Ireland.

Four days later, Leo Varadkar’s government pulled the plug on racing, including any claimer in which Yuften might partake.

And on Wednesday, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s head of security Chris Gordon won his defamation case by unanimous verdict against the Irish Racehorse Trainers’ Association in the High Court. This is to entail catastrophic costs, amounting to seven figures, for the trainers’ body, money it clearly does not have.

Meanwhile, the Racing Post temporarily ceased printing the paper, with the future far from certain; a raft of owners will have taken their horses out of training this week en masse; and racecourses enter into an indefinite period without any income.

The Yuften case, should it be so-called, considering Yuften finished second in the event at Dundalk, prompted the acting stewards to refer the matter to the CEO of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board. This was the only thing to do lest you think stewards should be compelled to agree an open-and-shut case based on circumstantial evidence over the course of half an hour.

If you are unfamiliar with what happened, you are little immersed in Irish racing, since everybody else seemed to be talking about it last Friday: I do not remember as much correspondence about a race of such little consequence on paper.

Yuften, who should have won easily on general form but was coming off a little break, finished second to Tony The Gent. Denis Hogan trains both horses in the colours of James McAuley. Both have enjoyed ample good publicity of late due to the exploits of the remarkable Sceptical, a heartwarming rags-to-riches story. The ramifications of this race were hardly heartwarming.

Those who say either Hogan, McAuley or both were up to no good here are jumping to dangerous conclusions and this is a complex case. One has to be open-minded.

Yuften, who was given a shocker of a ride by the highly talented Joe Doyle, never got near Tony The Gent, given a perfectly competent steer by Joey Sheridan. That in itself is noteworthy but it is not as though claimers do not regularly throw up results contrary to logic and jockeys have off-days.

Yuften’s excellent record in Dundalk claimers meant he should have been sent off something like 2/5 favourite. Instead, Tony The Gent started odds-on, with Yuften 6/4. This was utterly perplexing and the sustained, baffling market move for Tony The Gent would quite reasonably have put many off having a bet on the race.

Simply, Yuften’s odds were in the category of: if it looks too good to be true. He was found to be lame post race, which arguably only adds to the mystery, as Doyle patently did not ride him in the last furlong like a horse who felt lame.

The42 can reveal the latest developments in the case. Yuften had surgery yesterday, during which he had an unstable chip removed. He will likely be out of action for a few months.

His connections will reference this when they are called before the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board hearing, as they should: it corroborates the argument that Yuften could not have been able to run to his best seven days ago.

However, another fascinating element to the case goes back to February, when officials in Britain signed a deal to provide integrity services to support their peers in Ireland, recognition that the British Horseracing Authority has some expertise in this area and the arsenal to fulfil its new obligations. The BHA — which last year flagged four Hogan-trained runners in Britain over integrity concerns — is, simply, all over this.

(Let it be emphasised here that Hogan was not found guilty of any wrongdoing in these four cases.)

Fundamentally, the illogical betting move is key to this case. What will the betting patterns tell us? Who was backing Tony The Gent? Who was laying Yuften? Did one or more accounts on the betting exchanges, benefitting from an unusually liquid market in extraordinary times, to the tune of colossal profit?

Only people with no interest in form could have joined the gamble unless they had inside information, suspected something was going on or simply behave like sheep in a herd.

Yuften’s lameness post-race is clearly of questionable relevance as he was not ridden accordingly. However, we have to accept that the result may have been a complete surprise to connections and Hogan did say post-race: “We’ll take them any way they come: I thought it would be the other way around.”

The promising young trainer, whose steeds have been well-able to land punts for his loyal owners in the past, opted not to give a quote for this piece this morning, which is understandable.

A point not lost in people within racing is that Dundalk was the only meeting in Ireland and Britain last Friday. Quite frankly, if this were the first time that the average British racing fan dedicated his day to studying the Irish form, I would not blame him if he never looked at or wagered on an Irish race again.

With so much criticism of the optics of Cheltenham going ahead, and not even behind closed doors, Uttoxeter racing the following Saturday to another large crowd, there has perhaps never been more fear within racing about how the sport is perceived by the general public. In particular, the Irish people seem to have responded with admirable duty to the Covid-19 crisis, and Cheltenham footage looked the equivalent of two fingers to many compatriots. Right or wrong.

Whatever the optics of that, the optics of the claimer in Dundalk last Friday were enough to put one off having a bet on Irish racing forever — and this will be after at least a month of many punters getting rather accustomed to not betting on racing or anything. The decision made at the IHRB hearing cannot but be of a seminal nature.

The Chris Gordon fiasco cannot but be seminal too. How on earth is the trainers’ body, which has a pension scheme and is in no position to simply fold itself, paying legal fees of over €1m? And how on earth did it think taking on Gordon in a protracted legal battle, a matter which hardly anyone apart from a handful of people gave a toss about, was a good idea?

Originally published at 14.23

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Johnny Ward

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