Stipes appear blinkered over All Win shock
The issue of what is a legitimate subject to come under scrutiny from the stewards raised its head last week with the inquiry that never was in the Champions Mile and the still-rumbling Honest Dragon affair at Happy Valley.
Coupled with the thorny decision of what to do with the errant but talented Northern Gold Ball, it was not an easy week for the stewards but one which threw into sharp relief their striving for transparency and consistency.
Honest Dragon's Valley victory was questioned in the stewards' room after the Peter Ho-trained gelding was backed from 50-1 to 20-1 before the 1,800-metre race. It was a legitimate subject given his up-and-down form, which had seen him finish 13th of 14 over course-and-distance on his previous start and win over 1,650 metres the time before that. In such circumstances, and with the odds tumbling on the big board, the stewards had an obligation to act.
But, strangely, in the very next race they held no inquiry into the victory of All Win, who went off a solid 10-1 despite having finished no closer than 10th in his previous four outings. Surely, if the stewards had an obligation to act over a reversal of form such as Honest Dragon's, then it was necessary to look into an apparently big step up such as All Win's.
After all, Honest Dragon's winning form was close at hand and, if he was forgiven his last-start failure, his chance was clearly better than 50-1, or even 20-1 come to that. Here was a leader with a good draw in a race lacking a great deal of pace and who had been successful only two starts back. A clear case of an over-priced horse - and just the type the professionals cannot let go unbacked at the sort of odds he drifted to initially on the night.
All Win, on the other hand, required a bit more delving to see that he had a more solid chance than at first glance. He was very closely matched with third favourite Red Diamond on last-start running despite the latter having won a race in which All Win finished 11th. Even so, to turn that form around into a victory seemed a legitimate case for investigation. This is not to point the finger at anyone, but in the interests of openness surely it is better to hear the explanations of connections in order to satisfy the betting public's curiosity or, worse, concern.
If an inquiry into the Honest Dragon case while ignoring All Win seemed strange, events took another odd twist the following day when the stewards kept up their barrage over Honest Dragon by releasing the sectional times for the gelding's last four runs. The breakdowns showed that at every stage of Wednesday's race (bar the first 200 metres), Honest Dragon had gone faster than on his previous run despite Ho having pointed out to the stewards that the gelding had enjoyed a more comfortable run for this win.
That much is fact, but overall the stewards' comparison did not make matters any clearer, it merely muddied the waters even further. What, for instance, are we to make of the fact that Honest Dragon was drawn 12 when he lost and four when he won? Or, as the stewards admitted, that the going was good to yielding when he lost and good when he won? If anything, the comparison - whether it was intended to or not - lent just as much weight to Ho's argument.
On the same day chief stipe John Schreck took the unusual step of responding publicly to press criticism of the failure to inquire into riding tactics employed in the Champions Mile. Specifically, the criticism centred on Shane Dye's riding of Charming City, who did not take up the lead despite a farcical pace which resulted in the race being run more than a second slower than the day's Class Four event over the same trip. Most of the loss was accounted for in the first half of the Champions Mile, which was run more than 2.5 seconds slower than the lower-class race.
With the benefit of hindsight, Dye admitted he may have been better to lead though rightly he pointed out that he had won the Classic Mile in February using similar tactics of sitting just behind the lead. Schreck, meanwhile, said it was not the stewards' job to inquire into errors of judgment.
But, as in the All Win case, surely a stewards' inquiry into the race was justified on the grounds of allaying public concern - not just over Dye's ride but how the race in general was run. The alternative, as we saw last week, is that the suspicions grow and get out of hand - and the matter is then aired in the press in a negative fashion. Eventually the questions over the Champions Mile were answered, but in a way which did the sport no favours.
With the Club focusing on better-class racing as it pumps more money into the top events, it cannot afford to lose public confidence in such races - which, given the high stakes involved, are often run at less than a true pace as jockeys and trainers call each other's bluff. That is a reality of big races the world over and one which, like it or not, the stewards are likely to have to tackle more often in the future.
Meanwhile, the Club seems ready to bite the bullet over Northern Gold Ball by refusing his entries for persistent offences at the barriers. For all the four-year-old's talent, it is difficult to see what other course of action is open to the Club, though equally it may prove difficult to devise the catch-all criteria currently under consideration by the Club to set out the circumstances in which a problem horse would face retirement.
A case-by-case approach seems the fairest way to proceed, coupled with tougher action against barrier rogues on race day. Indian Road, another of the worst offenders, was allowed to delay the start for several minutes two outings back when quicker action could have been taken to rule him out of the race. In the end, Indian Road's backers got no run for their money, while his antics caused untold damage to his rivals' chances. There was another more minor example on Saturday when Open Treasure gave trouble before the second griffin event but went in with the hood fitted. If he had not, it would have been interesting whether he would have been given another chance. Calling time on the barrier rogues is essential on race day, too - even if it costs the Club money through returned bets.