Every sport has stereotypes they would prefer not to have, writes Tony Keenan. Track and field athletes are dopers, footballers are grossly overpaid and horse racing is bent. One can flip these sorts of views around however. The World Athletics Championships at London 2017 were relatively clean by modern standards, the suppressed times and overall unpredictability of results suggesting anti-doping is working to some degree. There is a strong case that rather than footballers being overpaid, their wages are in line with market value and related to massive TV deals, sponsorship and such like. Racing, well we’ll come to that.
There can be little doubt that the general public’s view of racing is a low one. In a recent study by Portland Communications entitled the UK Sports Integrity Index 2017, a survey was carried out on 2,110 people on their views on the most and least trusted sports. Participants were asked to place each sport in terms of four categories: fixing of events, use of performance enhancing drugs, financial corruption and cover-up stories/scandals. Racing came out eleventh of 12 overall sports with only football behind and the sport’s position in each of the categories surveyed were: fixing (last), PEDs (eighth), financial corruption (second-last) and cover-ups (tenth).
The issue with the general public is that their views are often based on limited knowledge. Racing has a history of being tied to chicanery with the centrality of betting to the sport a massive factor and we probably don’t help ourselves in this regard by lionizing some of the coups that have gone on over time. It’s difficult if not impossible to change these sorts of perceptions in the mainstream as people have neither the time nor the interest to engage with what racing is really like.
I’m less interested in their entrenched opinions than I am in those of the betting public, a group who have at worst a passing knowledge of racing and often possess a passion for the sport. Yet if you ask these people about their views on the integrity of racing – and Irish racing in particular – you often get a particularly negative response. Searching ‘Irish racing’ in Twitter throws up more than its share of vitriol to its participants with the likes of Aidan O’Brien, Ryan Moore, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh routinely described in terms of the lowest cheats. It’s the same should you visit your local betting shop. A large part of me says such people are morons looking to blame someone else for a losing bet but we do risk going the full ostrich here; these are the customers with the betting euro and pound and what they think of the sport does matter, not least because they can choose to bet on something else.
It is important to state now that I believe Irish racing to be straight, by and large; it is a betting product I have faith in and I can’t remember the last time I had a bet in a race and thought there was something rotten about it. I qualify that by saying I do most of my betting and viewing on the middle to upper reaches of the sport but I would be happy to say it has a lot less skulduggery than is widely perceived. Irish racing is regarded as a world leader by many of those who participate in it but there is a huge disconnect between this view and the broader perception of the sport among those that like a bet.
Looking at the broad picture of what punters bet on, it is worth pointing out that Irish racing is a relatively low turnover sport for most operators, particularly those in the online sphere. Certainly it is less popular with bettors than UK racing –the obvious point that there is much more UK racing needs to be made – while other sports are also on the rise with the younger demographic, racing being hard to grasp initially relative to other more straightforward sports. It was interesting to read recently that Horse Racing Ireland wanted betting tax increased in Ireland but they should be careful what they wish for and hope that their return from the tax is not pro-rated to the amount actually bet on the Irish racing; were that to be the case they could be in for a rude awakening.
This possible lack of faith in Irish racing does not just come from punters however. Paddy Power, the largest of the Irish bookmakers, recently cut back appreciably on their laying of Irish overnight prices in their shops. They now bet only the better class racing where once they would have offered the full menu of the next day’s racing and while many punters will say that overnights are only a cheap way of getting their cards marked, it is worth pointing out that they continue to lay more UK races overnight. It could be argued that this is more to do with the type of business you attract – the person who is betting the previous evening likely has some degree of homework done – than what they are actually betting on but the contrast between their approaches to racing from the two jurisdictions is pointed.
Educating the punters you have on your sport is important to altering this perception of deception and the ultimate responsibility for this has to rest with the governing bodies and authorities. One simple way of improving attitudes would be to get the stewards to ask more questions about horses that perform dismally. Often there are very sensible reasons for underperformance from jockey error to physical issues yet one only hears about these reasons after the horse has bounced back to form next time. The Turf Club website provides these reasons in the post-race reports section of their website but it is all too limited; often you will look at a meeting where only one or two excuses were provided for the whole cohort of horses across a seven-race card. More questions should be asked not only on the day but after the event – often something will come to light in the days that follow – and these responses need to be published in every horse’s form to improve the transparency of the sport.
Prize-money is another important consideration though not at the upper levels. Whether the Irish Champion Stakes is worth €1.25 million or €1 million matters not a jot to the integrity of the race; it is Ireland’s best flat race and everyone wants to win it for the prestige and stallion fees. Race values do matter in the bottom grade and you ideally want a situation where an owner that wins a race, no matter how lowly, will be able to cover training fees for a period of months rather than the winning trip to the races costing them money.
Some will say that such efforts are pointless as you are never going to change people’s views towards a sport because they are too deeply entrenched. While I tend to agree with this in relation to the general public and acknowledge that some will be attracted to racing in the hope of getting the inside scoop on a horse, such complacency can be dangerous. The popularity of sports wane and flow and what obsessed people 20 years ago can now be an irrelevance. Competition for the betting pound and euro is stiff and it is getting stiffer with bookmakers often not helping racing to even maintain its position and the arrival of events such as e-sports as well as ever more markets doesn’t make things easy for racing. How a sport looks from the outside, especially to those a little closer to the centre, will continue to matter.
– Tony Keenan