An old friend in journalism, well aware that he was prone to conspiracy theories, especially where his own career was concerned, used to say to me, ‘Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t out to get me.’ So were the authorities out to get Aidan O’Brien when they convicted him and jockey Colm O’Donoghue of team tactics in the recent Juddmonte International, won by Duke of Marmalade?
I ask because some of the best-respected voices in racing have suggested that the motivation for the action against O’Brien was jealousy, because English trainers are having a comparatively poor season while O’Brien and his Ballydoyle team have already secured a phenomenal 20 Group One successes this season. Others have suggested that, while racing has been receiving enough bad publicity down at the lower end, the authorities should not have further besmirched its face by suggesting that there was something dodgy about one of the best races in the calendar, especially when it was almost certainly won by the best horse contesting it.
On this one you can count me in with the powers that be. I am a fervent admirer of Aidan O’Brien and of his stable jockey Johnny Murtagh. The modest, softly spoken O’Brien is the sort who would not only escort old ladies across the road but would also hold up the traffic to return a dropped fiver to a millionaire. But I think they were rightly taken to task by the British Horseracing Authority and that they were lucky not to have been penalised more heavily than they were.
Let us go back to basics. Racing is not a team sport. It is all about one horse and jockey coming past the finishing post first.
The rules of racing state that no horse must make any manoeuvre in the interests of another horse from the same stable, whether or not interference is caused.
What happened in the Juddmonte was that Colm O’Donoghue, riding Red Rock Canyon, set the pace. Around half a mile from home he looked over his shoulder. Soon after that he moved away from the rails, leaving a clear route through for Duke of Marmalade, who came through the gap and went on to win. Like Red Rock Canyon, Duke of Marmalade is owned by partners in the supremely effective Coolmore partnership and trained by Aidan O’Brien.
The raceday stewards at Newmarket perceived no breach of the rules and took no action. But after the race Murtagh told reporters: ‘I was always going to follow Colm [...] I said to him, “When you get to the four marker just ease off and give me the passage through.” It’s what Ballydoyle is all about.’ And in the light of the media storm which followed, the BHA called the Ballydoyle team in for the inquiry, although curiously at first they left Johnny Murtagh out of it.
It was not just the Juddmonte that was sticking in our minds. The Ballydoyle boys had some ‘previous’ too. Ballydoyle desperately needed a win at Royal Ascot from the ex-Australian Haradasun before he headed off to stud. They duly secured that victory. But not until David McCabe, another of Ballydoyle’s substitute bench, had looked over his shoulder after making the pace on Honoured Guest and then eased clear of the rail to allow Murtagh through on Haradasun.
There was a big barney back in 2006 when Frankie Dettori accused Ballydoyle of employing team tactics with its runners in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes to force him wide on Librettist. Uncharacteristically O’Brien then accused Frankie of ‘throwing his toys out of the pram’ and, yes, he did call him ‘paranoid’ too. On that occasion an inquiry found Ballydoyle guiltless, but it did lead the BHA to redraft the rules in their present terms.
It is a fine line between horses drifting off a line and jockeys steering them that way. Things are not always as they appear. But the key question is the one raised by the shrewd professional gambler Dave Nevison. If O’Donoghue or McCabe had looked back and not seen Johnny Murtagh neatly poised behind them, would they have made the same move to wave somebody else’s horse through like a regularly rewarded head-waiter steering a favoured customer to the best table?
Suspicions of team tactics are inevitably raised by O’Brien’s tendency to run a whole clutch of horses in some of the top races as pacemakers. But that is a separate issue. Pacemakers are allowed. Most racing authorities accept that it is for the good of the breed in the long term to have races run not as a dawdle with a sprint at the end but at a truly testing pace throughout. Provided that pacemakers do not impede other horses as they fall back, there is no offence in that. Occasionally, though, the suspicion lingers that somebody is being a little too clever for the good of the sport, reckoning, as a US Senator once put it, ‘You can fool some of the people all of the time and those are the ones to concentrate on.’
At the end of the day the Juddmonte aftermath is an encouragement that the racing authorities are not confining their inquiries to ferret-faced ten-horse trainers with greasy trilbies who are seen too often in the wrong racecourse bars. They are prepared to go after the big boys too. But perhaps the penalties for improper team tactics may have to be looked at again. A fine of £5,000 may be a life or death matter to a 12-strong yard with dodgy payers. To somewhere like Ballydoyle it is chicken feed. Perhaps the ultimate penalty should be the possibility of losing the race. And who, by the way, will be disciplining the Newmarket stewards who first felt there was no case to answer?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 4, 2008