Getting Off The Fence

Fri, Apr 30, 2010

Betting People

It’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time but without doubt the biggest criticism that I attract as a broadcaster is for ’sitting on the fence’ and not being critical enough of jockeys. Yesterday’s opening race at Hereford was just such a race, where my ‘defense’ of a jockey angered some. Here’s an insight into what goes through my head in such  a situation.

The first race at Hereford started in controversial style with a wet and soggy starting tape distracting one horse sufficiently that its jockeywas unshipped. The start though was straightforward compared to the ride given to second favourite Wee Ziggy. At the start of the race the horse was held up right at the back of the field and that’s where jockey Brian Toomey kept him throughout the majority of the race. It was not until a couple of flights from home that Wee Ziggy began to make progress through the field, eventually finishing in fifth place.

The ride immediately sparked a lot of comment from viewers e mailing into ATR and from posters on the Betfair Forum and elsewhere. Some of the e mailers were outraged and regarded the ride as a blatant piece of non trying. I reviewed the race myself on a screen I can use in the broadcast booth at At The Races.

At first glance the hold up tactics looked exaggerated but after a couple of viewings it was clear that Toomey was not waiting any longer than several other jockeys around him to make his move. Lots of jockeys in that race judged that the front horses had gone too fast early on. They were half right, in that one of the leaders ‘fell in a hole’ the winner however kept on galloping and pulled a long way clear. So, in terms of the timing of his move Toomey was no more ‘wrong’ than several other riders in the race.

The next question is the strength of effort from the saddle. This is a question that often arises with jockeys of lesser experience and/or ability. I’m sure Toomey wouldn’t mind acknowledging that he’s got some way to go before he’ll be troubling AP McCoy and his efforts have to be judged against his overall experience and ability and in context of having seen him on other horses. Again, taken in context, there was nothing clearly wrong with that aspect of the ride either.

The other crucial piece of context that has to be considered and, thanks to the internet can be quickely checked out, is how the horse is normally ridden. Most of Wee Ziggy’s best efforts have come under this jockey, using identical tactics.

Having established that context I was able to review the Hereford race immediately prior to the second race on that card being run. Had it been later in the day, when there were four meetings taking place at one point, it might not have been possible to review the race in the time allowed. I showed the race, briefly summed up the context of the ride as I saw it, and concluded that Toomey was ‘fine’ as far as I was concerned and had no case to answer.

Cue the obligitaory ’sitting on the fence’ accusations from some of those viewers who remained convinced that a stroke had been pulled.

Now, I may be wrong about the ride and I’m sure on occasions I have been, but the process I’ve outlined here is essential for very good reasons. It’s very tempting to immediately jump in and join the chorus of criticism. Doing so strikes a chord with many viewers and earns automatic plaudits and praise in some quarters. Playing to the gallery in this way is good for the ego but it’s very dangerous. Jockeys are generally freelancers, only as good as their last ride, and reliant entirely on peoples opinions of them for their employment. That’s why I reserve criticism for those cases where fault can be clearly demonstrated, or where it has already been found by an investigation or inquiry.

Taking time to get a fair and balanced angle on a ride is not always the popular route to go and the quick hit of a glib comment, or snide remark might win the broadcaster fans amongst those who agree but does punters no real favours in the end. The truth is that in most such examples, whilst there might be an element of cock up, there is no conspiracy. The truth is often mundane, less dramatic and likely to cause a backer of a horse to reconsider their own decision making. Not popular but better in the long run in terms of helping us to make better judgements in our punting and pass fairer judgements on those in the saddle.

Sometimes the real context won’t emerge until some time later. When Straw Bear made his chasing debut at Exeter AP McCoy was roundly lambasted by viewers and Betfair Forumites alike but I was positively roasted for daring to put that ride too into context. I referred people to the trainers previous comments about the horse, the horse’s clearly suspect jumping and the necessity for McCoy to get the horse round the course and over the obstacles first and foremost. I was pilloried for that one.

The stewards enquired into the running and riding of the horse, the e mails went into meltdown and even the Racing Post comments suggested the horse would have won under a stronger ride. The irony of being accused of sitting on the fence in such a situation is that I was the only bugger on that fence. Everyone else was getting stuck into McCoy. It was a lonely postion to take to defend the ride as being appropriate given all the circumstances but I maintain it was the right position to take. Straw Bear never won a race after that run and indeed never put in a performance that would suggest he should definitely have won at Exeter either.

We saw the same mob mentality applied to Dunguib in the wake of the Supreme Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham where the idea that the tactics employed by the jockey cost the horse the race was expressed so widely that it was easy to forget that it was just an idea, an opinion, not a fact. I dared to suggest the possibility that the horse many – including me – thought was good enough to run in the Champion Hurdle was beaten fair and sqaure and nowhere near as good as we all thought. What happened at Punchestown, I think, proves that to be the case. Again, sitting on the fence, was a lonely spot to occupy.

I’ve got a few of these wrong for sure too. I gave Rab Havlin the benefit of the doubt for a ride on one of Gosden’s at Chepstow that, with hindsight, I was totally wrong about. By and large though, when the dust has settled, I’ve been happy with the judgements I’ve reached and that’s the real point here.

When people have a pop at these jockeys, when the dust is settled, the critics are nowhere to be seen. When time proves that their original comments were wrong, they go very quiet indeed. It’s rare to find a pundit or broadcaster with the common courtesy and the balls to apologise when they’ve wrongly criticised a jockey.

I don’t remember anyone writing or broadcasting by the end of the 08/09 season that Straw Bear can’t jump for toffee and we were wrong for slagging McCoy for getting the horse safely round on his feet on his debut. The silence since Dunguib got put firmly in his place at Punchestown has been deafening too. Don’t get me started on the muppets who said McCoy was the wrong man for Denman but had nothing to say when he rode the horse brilliantly and Kauto ended up on the deck, or when he got him round Punchestown despite Denman’s best efforts to race the circuit the other way round!

Yes, I’ll get some wrong but there’s unlikely to be much damage caused when I do. I’ll leave playing to the gallery to those who can’t live without the applause. I’m happy on the fence.

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5 Responses to “Getting Off The Fence”

  1. Graeme Says:

    I had a look at the race in question. I can’t find a great deal of fault with the ride myself. The horse didn’t have the best of starts, so trying to keep him nearer the front after a bad start wouldn’t have done the horse any favours. I will take another look, but i also noticed that Wee Ziggy is a tricky customer, who seems to have a tendency to pull to it’s left on occasions. I’m now having a second look as i type, and as before i can’t see what else he could have done. The other jockeys probably thought that their horses couldn’t endure a battle with Skye But N Ben, so possibly thought they will wait until he tires, then capitalize, which obviously didn’t materialise. I don’t think any of the runners up had the quality to change the result had they tried to fight it out from closer to the front.

    There’s nothing wrong with sticking up for jockeys. At the end of the day, Betfair is full of angry comments, as the majority of punters lose like anywhere else. Simple logic would indicate that any e-mails sent from there are from punters who have just lost a few bob, and need someone to have a moan at. They find fault with absolutely anyone, and anything.

    Racing like many other sports is all about opinions. I think all opinions are worth listening to, regardless of whether i agree with them or not. I would happily listen to someone on tv even if i don’t agree with them, as long as it’s their own opinion, and not simply an opinion viewers want to hear. And i should also add, that when my bets in the guineas go tits up, it’s my fault for choosing to bet, and not the jockeys or anyone elses for that matter.

  2. Patrick Says:

    You finish off your article Sean by saying your happy on the fence.
    Why would anyone be happy on the fence?, while I can see circumstance where because of been in the booth on ATR regulary, angry viewers will often email in over one thing or another, you might not have a strong opinion on the subject matter but out of courtesy to the emailers you might find the need to put across an argument for both sides basically fence sitting.
    Sean as we know horses can’t talk and because of this fence sitting has become endemic within racing journalism there seems to be a mortal fear of speaking the truth or at least saying what you really think, is this because racings natives have you bent over a barrel and roar from the stalls at the slightest hint that what they might have done might not be above board or are racings journalits their own worst enemies and have gave the natives such an easy ride over the years that the natives have become bullies and circle the wagons at the slightest hint of danger.
    Considering how other sports are reported there can be no doubt that racings general public get a very raw deal from the people who are employed to report this sport to them, and considering that this sports wheels are kept turning by betting and the publics money its galling that fence sitting is the preferred position of choice from virtually every racing journalist.
    I have to be honest here Sean do you not think that there is certain element of cowardice involved here by that I mean racing journalism as a whole!.

  3. seanboyce Says:

    Good post Patrick.

    The ‘happy on the fence’ line was meant to be tongue in cheek.

    The reason it’s important to be fair and objective is that it’s very easy to do serious damage to somebody’s career with some wrong headed conclusions. How many potential future employers of a jockey like Brian O’Connell will be ( totally wrongly ) swayed against using him by comments about the ride he gave Dunguib? You’re right of course that punters need protecting from skulduggery but people in any walk of life are entitled to protection from damaging criticism which is not true just because it’s what they’re saying on the Betfair Forum.

    There are other considerations too. The broadcast media is very heavily regulated. Much more heavily than print media and the need to be fair and balanced is not just a moral imperative it’s a legal one.

    There is no comparison between racing and other sports for one simple reason. Betting. The betting element means that very often when we’re talking in a critical way about a ride or a training performance, what we may be implying is corruption.

    Once again, that increases the need for accuracy. I’ve flagged up more 157 breaching rides than any other journalist that I know of. If I get one of those shouts wrong it will result in lawsuits, which if successful would almost certainly finish my career.

    One jockey, despite failing in a bid in the courts to have the BHA findings against him reversed, is continuing legal action against ATR for an interview I conducted with him. Again, if successful that might well end my career.

    For that reason I strongly disagree with accusations of cowardice. The costs of getting an accusation wrong are catastrophically high.

    I do though agree with your wider criticism of the history of the coverage of the sport as a whole to some extent. This is only partly explained by fear of litigation. There has been a complicity with the inherent lack of integrity within the sport for a very long time.

    When we talk of a ‘classic coup by X trainer’ or a good old fashioned punt landed by Y, we are very often effectively endorsing the systematic concealment of a horse’s ability over a period of time.

    The ‘closed shop’ criticism also has some validity. Again, though it’s not so easy to be judgemental here. Former footballers, employed as millionaire pundits, are in a good position to be as critical as they like.

    It’s a bit harder for the freelance satellite TV journo standing outside the weighing room at Southwell to be quite so robust. And yes, part of that is because the jockeys and trainers will cut them off.

    That’s fine if you’re a big shot celeb reporter with plenty of support within the media and your bosses are going to back you, not so clever if you end up not getting any work because no bugger will speak to you any more.

    I do think there is some movement on this front though. I think jockeys and trainers are becoming more mindful of their responsibilities on the media front and with that will come a more professional relationship between the sport and it’s media. There are good journalists out there though who are not afraid to say what they think. Greg Wood, Alan Lee, Lydia Hislop all spring easily to mind and in that sense I think the sport is actually quite well served compared to other minority sports.

    All of that Patrick is a very long winded way of saying a few simple things -
    Often when people cry ‘foul’ and want a journo to speak up for them they’re wrong. Good journo’s will no when not to speak up as well as when to do so.
    Participants in sport are as entitled to protection from smear and libel as the viewers are to good reporting.
    Standing up is not always possible because of legal liability, especially for broadcast media.
    Racing journalism has historically been too close to the participants.
    There is a degree of laziness and pragmatism in what we do as racing journalists as very few (maybe one?) have the profile and the income to feel genuinely independent.
    So, we agree on some points and disagree on others! Like I said though, good post.

  4. Patrick Says:

    Forgive my typo on my previous post your-you’re, no big deal but a few out there are snobs in this regard and get a condescending kick out of correcting peoples spelling mistakes and grammer errors.

    Getting back to your comprehensive reply, while I agree with a lot of what you’ve said Sean, but I still believe a lot more can be said without leaving yourself open to litigation, its this bullying threat of litigation that has many racing journalists deciding that doing an ostrich impression is the safest way to go.

    Its not just the highlighting of possible dodgy goings on but many other aspects of racing that effect the punter/general public go unreported.
    There is a lot vested interests within racing and its protaganists, take for instance many racing journalists are horse owners, some have a great affinity and rapport with certain stables.
    Then there is the VIP bookmaker accounts, take for example Don Mc Clean Irish racing journalist had an article on the Irish version of the Racing Post on tuesday, the main topic of his article was the dramatic slump in turnover from the betting ring, he gave a few reasons as to why this was the case the obvious economic downturn, the internet, shop money back offers etc but he failed to mention the one thing he should have been shouting from the highest peak the astonishing rip off of oncourse punters on Irish racecourses, the overrounds are INCREDIBLE! we had a book of 178% last week.
    Why Sean did Don remain muted on this very real issue concerning punters?, its hardly litigation territory to highlight this rip off, all comes back to vested interest and the gravy train if you like?.

    On the subject of Brian O’Connell and Dunguib, here we have an example of racing journalists shouting their mouths off [it was not just the betfair forum] at an easy target, I thought Brian O’Connell done very little wrong but many saw him as the scapegoat and laid into the poor chap with gusto. I have seen many examples of racing journalist finding it much easier to find words that otherwise fail them when a lesser known or journeyman jockey gets beat on a fancied horse, one Matt Williams the biggest culprit of them all, yet when a god of the saddle like McCoy or Fallon make an error they blame the horse or remain muted, Binocular in last years champion hurdle anyone?.
    So in effect Sean this is cowardly bullying from some racing journo’s and goes to show they can open their mouths if they want to but a pity they can’t unzip them when more pressing issues in racing present themselves like the apathetic authorities and the leniency they show to the perpetrators, but give them a young or journeyman jockey to get stuck into and you can’t shut them up.

    Regards Patrick.

  5. seanboyce Says:

    I, in turn, agree with a lot of what you’re saying Patrick. I think you’re right that many are quicker to attack a lesser light than a big name and that is effectively cowardly. I can’t comment on why an individual journalist has failed to highlight margins on course on Ireland. I’ve often mentioned it on air on ATR – and received some tasty anonymous threats for doing so more than once!
    It is an area that wants looking at. I think sometimes it’s ignorance as much as anything that prevents people commenting. I think many racing journalists are not sufficiently skilled in betting to realise when a market stinks.
    There is a wider question here too – raised by Paul Haigh when leaving the Racing Post – that journalists who work for organisations that are heavily reliant on income from the betting industry, are likely to self censor when it comes to attacking firms or industries that indirectly pay their wages.
    There is certainly some truth in that for The Post, for ATR and for RUK. National broadsheets don’t have that issue which is why we rely to an extent on the Woods and Lees and so on of the world to take up these topics. Racing channels that work in partnership with racing are not going to set about doing a panorama job on racing or its participants for obvious reasons. Undesirable but a fact of life.

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