Yorkhill, Melon, Markets and Investigations

One thing the Dublin Racing Festival didn’t need was a betting scandal of sorts, but that is what has unfolded in the aftermath of the Saturday card, with Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB, the old Turf Club) chief executive Denis Egan saying on Monday there would be an investigation into ‘suspicious betting patterns’ on Yorkhill and Melon in their respective races, writes Tony Keenan.

This was a strange move from the IHRB, unprecedented in fact, as I can’t recall them announcing an examination of a betting market before – and one that may amount to ‘nothing’ according to Egan – though perhaps they felt the need to at least say something given the profile of the races involved.

The Dublin Racing Festival was a shop window event for Irish racing and a success on many levels though for some it only served to confirm their worst suspicions about the sport in Ireland. There remains a general air of suspicion among punters towards Irish racing and that view applies to bettors both inside and outside Ireland. Irish punters are as likely, if not more so, to be sceptical of integrity of our racing as those betting from other jurisdictions. The nature of how some Irish jumps races are run, maiden hurdles and chases in particular, has become a standing joke except that it’s not all that funny when you consider the impact it can have on confidence in the sport as a betting product which has knock-on effects on punters.

With Yorkhill and Melon, it is worth outlining the facts as we know them. For much of Saturday morning, Yorkhill was trending away from favouritism in the Dublin Chase as money came for his stablemate, Min. Having started out around even money, he hit a high of 3.85 pre-race before returning a Betfair Starting Price of 2.94 prior to running a listless race, beaten over 80 lengths by the finish.

Melon was much more solid in the morning, attracting some support but then drifting out markedly from 3.95 on Betfair at 3:20 out to a high of 6.2 ten minutes later before going back into 5.9 at the off. He too ran flat and having initially seemed to settle better than usual, faded to finish fifth, beaten 12 lengths. After the race, the stewards did not ask for an explanation from trainer or jockey on either horse which clearly isn’t good enough on any level, though Willie Mullins has said in the interim that he had ‘no worries’ about either horse.

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I should state at this point that I believe that the game is generally straight – though as a form-based punter I would say that – and it isn’t hard to find logical, form-filled explanations for the run of Yorkhill at least. He was coming off a terrible effort at Christmas, the worst of his career prior to Saturday, and he was also dropping markedly in distance having not run over the minimum trip since December 2016. Perhaps training regimes for the different trips differ and he didn’t react well to the change and it could be argued that such a dramatic shift in trip was a desperation move from connections.

Furthermore, Yorkhill is mental.

This is a horse that basically bossed his jockey when winning at Aintree in April 2016 before doing the same in defeat at Fairyhouse last April; there was always a chance his temperament could let him down for all there were no outward shows of such at Leopardstown. With Melon, a form-based explanation comes to mind less readily. He came into the Irish Champion Hurdle off a career-best run and seemed primed for a big effort but below the level he achieved at Cheltenham on his penultimate start. Horses can and do run badly for no apparent reason every day of course.

One also needs to consider the nature of the markets on these races. Some have argued that while price moves like this are to be accepted in lower class races, they should not happen in Grade 2’s. I’m not so sure. This was not the Champion Chase at Cheltenham where the odds are largely set for weeks in advance; only a handful of firms had ante-post prices and turnover was surely low with no one sure whether Yorkhill or Min or both would run. Furthermore, we are constantly told how flaky early prices on Irish racing are so it shouldn’t be the greatest surprise that there was a late move even in a race of this class as it is the only time where punters of size can get on. Perhaps the initial prices were simply wrong in the eyes of some major players.

Ultimately, any arguments about the form of those involved or market dynamics are neither here nor there if something untoward happened, and on Saturday it was the speed and relentless nature of the drift on these pair of horses that led to some asking questions. With that said, we do need to be careful about drawing firm conclusions based on what is happening from just looking at the exchanges. Sometimes price drifts are innocuous, merely the product of another horse in the race being backed, and prices and offers move so fast that is hard to discern what is unfolding. Perhaps these markets offer the illusion of transparency rather than transparency itself.

When the IHRB start to investigate these cases – and it will take them a while to start as there is an inevitable time lag between the races themselves and getting the market information – one would hope they would look not just at the price drift but also at the volume of money being laid. Most important of all however is who might be laying a horse and how it fits in with their overall pattern of play; a lay bet to lose €20,000 may seem huge to many punters but for some that could be their standard stake. This sense of where the lay bets fit in has been the cornerstone of many successful cases brought by the BHA in recent years.

The IHRB have not brought anything like as many cases as the BHA and it is important to consider their powers. They have a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding with Betfair going back to 2007 that should create an audit trail and one assumes the channels between the two are open. However, there is no such agreement between the IHRB and Betdaq which is highly unsatisfactory and reflects badly on both. In May 2011, the IHRB created rules on the laying of horses and that was followed in September 2012 by a provision for accessing the phone and bank records of trainers and jockeys. Should those records need to be accessed the decision must be supported by an external adjudicating officer to ensure the investigation in justified. In February 2015, a confidential integrity hotline was established for anyone wishing to pass information anonymously.

This decade however there has only been one successful prosecution by the then-Turf Club as jockey Edward O’Connell and owner Robert Martin were banned for four and ten years respectively for events surrounding the running of Yachvili at Downpatrick in September 2011 and it took to May 2014 before the case was concluded. Betting records from Betfair were widely considered to be central to the case. The absence of further cases could say a number of things. Perhaps Irish racing is the cleanest around though I suspect there are few who totally subscribe to that theory. Or, possibly more likely, there is no great appetite to proceed with cases of this type as they are very difficult to build, bearing in mind that the Yachvili incident took two-and-a-half years to be resolved. I may be in the minority here but it might actually be good for Irish racing if there were more of these cases if only to act as a deterrent.

While all of this may have been a bad news story from the Dublin Racing Festival and Irish racing in general, it is important to point out a good piece of betting news that didn’t receive the coverage it deserved over the weekend. In an extension of their approach to live races on ITV, Ladbrokes guaranteed betting shop punters a lay-to-lose liability of €5,000 on the win part of bets on the 12 races televised on RTE across the two days. This was a big move, the first of its kind in Ireland, and Ladbrokes have over 140 shops here so it was meaningful. Ostensibly, there may appear to be no link between these guarantees and any IHRB investigations into irregular betting patterns but in fact they go hand-in-hand; for a betting company to have a reasonable degree of faith in the product on show, integrity must be of a high standard so what the IHRB do in cases like these does matter.

Tony Keenan

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