Betting steward is hot on the trail
Former SCMP racing editor Murray Bell will have had a quiet giggle to himself at comments by chief steward Kim Kelly following the Shahjee inquiry last week.
One of the key points for the public regarding Shahjee's win being followed by a ketamine positive was the three-year-old was backed like the backers had tomorrow's paper. Shortening from more than 8-1 down to a dark brown light and 3-1 at the off - that was a significant hit, especially in a race where there was good support for other runners.
We've discussed before why these late hits are so overwhelming and from where that impact is coming, and the likely value that the punting public places on them, especially after one wins. But when the odds turn brown, the horse wins and then comes up with a positive drug test?
Now you're talking ... well, let's just say there are other jurisdictions in the Asian region where winners regularly test positive, trainers are found guilty and fined a pittance but bets have already been paid out and that's where the money is.
The temptation, no, the demand, to put two and two together is irresistible. Even the stewards must feel the creeping urge to suspect somebody did something that shouldn't have been done.
And that was Shahjee - but for the Jockey Club having taken on board Bell's suggestion several years ago in this column that Hong Kong should follow the Australian lead and have a full-time betting steward.
A steward whose duties do not involve conduct and licensing matters or race-day interference or positive tests or jockeys having the right helmets, vests or whips or horses working the right side of the cones at trackwork.
No interactive role between the club and the press. No official meet and greet. Just the betting side of the game. The part that pays all the bills and but for which, racing as we know it would not exist.
Form analysis, assessing reasonable tactical expectations, pricing races before the event and then analysing the tactics, odds and the outcome alongside betting trends and patterns after it.
That idea was received very coolly, to say the least by the club, and by the stipendiary stewards themselves, who, in fairness, do look at the form before races and have their opinions, and who rejected the notion they might not be paying enough attention.
So it went, until this season, when the club employed a former bookmaker and form analyst to act as the betting steward.
Kelly's post-Shahjee comments last week that it was the best move the Jockey Club has made lately in progressing the control of racing made one wonder why the commonsense move hadn't happened sooner.
As a result of the new steward's efforts, Kelly said the club was confident the plunge on Shahjee was unrelated to the potential go-fast drug subsequently found in his system. Betting patterns simply didn't support the notion of prior knowledge of an unexpected advantage. There was no sting.
That new steward had been called upon earlier in the season, too, when the price stomping that has become a characteristic of this term was still new and shocking and bound to lead to certain conclusions. Many of the cases of huge shorteners were explained, at least in-house if not to the general public, as nothing to worry about - more an understandable, if very sharp, price correction than a rort where the support was utterly unsupportable.
The new betting steward has the access to accounts and the placing of wagers, the skills and, importantly, the time to cross reference what happens in betting and in races, and compare it with a proper objective pre-race expectation of those events, lining up the patterns and profiles.
The world tends to be less tricky than we imagine it and the new steward's job is probably a great deal more perspiration than inspiration, with few 'eureka' moments.
But buried among the deep piles of innocently spent turnover dollars, the new role is also finding the odd link here and there that will name names and tell other stories about things that are going on, and are very real.