Friday, March 21, 2014

Self-certificates (yawn)

Right.  We'll start with the particular, and then move to the general. The particular is that we'll head to Stratford tomorrow with Frankie / Douchkirk (pictured here standing proud on a wonderfully sunny February morning last month) who drops into selling class (and in distance to two miles) and who ought to be one of the principal chances in the first hurdle race run at Stratford this year - and the fact that it is the first should mean that, notwithstanding that the course spent quite a lot of time under water in January and February, he should be racing on lovely ground.  Let's hope that he can relish the conditions and do the right thing.

Now to the general.  There are two ways of looking at 'self-certifcates', rather in the same way that Alan Partridge, in a meeting with his nemesis / bete noir Tony Hayers, found that there are two ways of looking at regional detective series. Normally I'd be with Tony Hayers on this one in that we hear too much of them, but as I've been asked (on Twitter) for my views, here goes.  Basically, the introduction of the 'self-certificate' when scratching a horse has been a wonderful innovation, one which has righted a glaring injustice.

There are so many disincentives to dissuade people from owning horses.  One is that they aren't machines: people would like to think that a horse can run 15 times a year and win four, but sadly it doesn't work like that - they are very fragile animals, and all too often it's rare enough that they can run, never mind win.  Another is the plethora of 'stealth taxes': levied on horse owners: we know it's an expensive business, but racehorse owners are forever being hit with hidden extras, and these really piss people off.

Here's an illustration which combines the two drawbacks.  Emma owns the bulk of Oscar Bernadotte, whom she bred, with Steve McCormick owning the other share.  Oscar's now six and has run once, 13 months ago, February 2013 (as seen in paragraphs two and three).  He's forever going wrong, and isn't in work at present.  That's frustrating enough, but that's racing.  And then this week she received a bill from Weatherbys for the annual re-registration fee for maintaining the registration of her colours, which she had previously paid to register and paid to have made.  And she received another bill for renewing the registration of Oscar's joint-ownership, which she had previously paid to register.  And another bill to re-register the fact that Oscar races in her colours, which she'd previously paid to register.  Get my drift?  To adapt Blackadder's observation, a racehorse owner is like a platypus because, whichever way he/she turns, he/she is faced by a ruddy great bill.  Which is hard to swallow because owners are what we all (trainers, jockeys, staff, media, administrators, racegoers, racecourses, punters, bookmakers) rely on to prevent the whole show from grinding to a halt.  And they are forever being taken for a ride.

Now we combine the two.  Of all the real frustrations, having a horse go amiss once
he is finally ready to run is the real sickener  - and, until the advent of the 'self-certificate', the owner, if/when he was hit by the real kick in the guts of having his horse fall lame or sick the day before he was due to run, had to face the extra salt rubbed into the wound, the extra kick in the balls, of having to pay not to run the horse. Strange but true: the trainer couldn't run the horse because he's lame or unwell, but he had to run him unless he paid (ie unless the owner paid) a vet to send a bit of paper to Weatherbys to confirm this, when common sense said that the trainer ought to be able to pass on this disappointing information for nothing.  If the BHA had so little confidence in a trainer's ability to tell when his horse has fallen sick or gone lame that it felt that a second (paid-for) second opinion was required, then the trainer shouldn't have had a license in the first place.  The good thing was that finally common sense kicked in: the trainer could make the diagnosis himself and not pay for a second opinion so that, while nothing could ease the disappointment of not being able to run the horse, at least one didn't have to pay extra for the privilege of this disappointment.

That's that. However, there now seems to be a school of thought that believes that when a trainer declares a horse to run, he is immediately looking for a way out of running him.  That isn't the case: when I declare a horse, it is because I want to run him - and it is bloody frustrating when, as inevitably happens occasionally (and particularly now that we declare two days, rather than one day, before the race), something crops up to make me reassess the opinion that the horse is fit to run.  Under those circumstances, it is in nobody's interests to have the horse run: not in the owner's interests, not in the horse's interests, and particularly not in punters' interests, as they'll do their dough backing a horse who I know isn't right.

It was previously insane that I had to pay a vet to pass on the opinion that the horse shouldn't run.  Thank God we no longer have to do so: we still have frustrations of horses going amiss, but we no longer have to pay extra not to run ill or lame horses.  I understand the logic of all the stealth taxes which are levied through Weatherbys (because the costs of racing's administration are colossal and racing receives a return from the betting industry which falls a long, long way short of covering the costs of running the sport in the style which bookmakers and punters demand, so owners have to be hit with umpteen stealth taxes to pay for racing's administration)  but vets' certificates?  They make no contribution towards keeping the show on the road, and merely go straight into the vet's pocket, for doing nothing other than coming round to the stable to sign a piece of paper.

I am aware that there appear to be a few trainers who abuse the system; trainers who, having declared a horse, might have second thoughts about running because, the declarations having come out, they find that the race is stronger than they were expecting it to be, or that their horse is drawn really badly.  Or even that they can make money betting by taking their horse out.  That's a problem, and it is one which probably does need to be tackled.  But the way to tackle it would NOT be to go back to the previous system of making owners pay for the privilege, having just suffered the kick in the nuts of their horse going lame or falling sick shortly before the race, of not running their horse who clearly shouldn't be running anyway.

I'd make two points.  Firstly to re-emphasise that I - and, I presume, the large majority of trainers - have never withdrawn a horse on a self-certificate for any reason other than that I am no longer happy with either his health or his soundness.  I  have often got to the races and scratched my head, reflecting that the horse is in a stronger race than I ought to have been able to find for him, or that he's really badly drawn and that that's going to make it hard - but I have never scratched (and would never scratch) the horse because of it.  And, secondly, scrapping self-certificates wouldn't solve the problem of their abuse anyway: the horses would just come out on a vet's certificate instead.  If one wanted to pretend that, say, a horse was showing a sign of ill-health by having lost his appetite and one needed a vet to vouch for this, it would be a piece of cake.  An hour before the vet arrived, one would give the horse more food than any horse could possibly eat, two thirds of which the horse would wolf down.  When the vet arrived, he'd see a horse standing and staring at a manger half-full of oats, but showing absolutely no interest in it.  What would he do?  Well, of course he'd, completely genuinely, sign a piece of paper to confirm that the horse hadn't eaten his feed, and that he was genuinely happy to confirm that the horse shouldn't run.

Scrapping self-certificates, therefore, would achieve nothing other than to punish racehorse-owners for owning horses which are frail flesh and blood, just like we all are.  What it wouldn't do is to curb abuse of the withdrawal system, if indeed such abuse does indeed exist.  What the answer is I don't know - but I do know what it isn't.

Oh yes, and we had some nice sunshine today, as you can see.


RP McArdle said...

I'm in a similar boat to Emma in that this season I won't have any horses in training but in addition to the registration costs you mention, I must pay to Horse Racing Ireland an annual accounting fee for HRI to account for the registraion costs of me not having a horse in training!

Oh dear, at least I can console myself with the knowledge that 2014 will be alot less costly than 2013.

neil kearns said...

Self certs are open to abuse as any employer will tell you when one of his staff takes time off which coincides with a couple of hot days weather that said generally the abuse can be monitored and regular culprits can be shown the door
It would seem to me a similar thought process can be applied to trainers if the rulers said a horse of 20 horses could have say 6 selfcerts in a season - or any sensible number you guys chose between rulers and trainers after that vet cert s would apply . The fair people would not be disadvantaged the rogues would have their wiggle room greatly reduced
You looked pleased with Douchkirk other TV fair run to my eyes

neil kearns said...

Apologies for the way some of my comments read but I can't turn ********* predictive text off

John Berry said...

Excellent suggestion, Neil - each trainer gets a quota commensurate with the size of his string, so he won't waste them on bogus (mis)uses.