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Pacemakers

Since Saturday's Sword Dancer, there has been a lot of talk about rabbits, both here on the blog and elsewhere. Frankly, you can't go to a story about the Sword Dancer and not read comments about the practice.

The World has a differing view on using a horse to set a pace (or kill off the speed), so another horse from the stable coming from off the pace has a better chance to win. Big stables in the UK, for example, want their well bred horses to win as many group one's as possible to increase the horse's worth in the breeding shed. This is one way to help.

This practice is technically against the rules in North America (and obviously not enforced), but it's not used often, and it's not particularly spelled out.

In places where it is accepted, it is spelled out, because, the betting public means something, of course. In the UK, pre-race, the horse being used as a rabbit is announced to bettors. This is why, as Sid Fernando put it today, Bullet Train, a very good horse in his own right, was 600-1 while being used as a rabbit for Frankel. I remember old Bullet Train 1000-1 at Betfair, where racegoers knew he was there as cannon fodder.

Places like Hong Kong, where you may think the Euro way would be followed, however, it's not. Rabbits are banned by the HKJC, and are not tolerated.

One quote from the Chief Steward for the HKJC caught my eye:
"Our rules don’t allow for pacemakers – we expect all runners in any race to employ tactics with the intention of winning or obtaining the best possible place in the field and that isn’t going to change," Kelly said. "And, if you are asking me for a personal opinion, the use of pacemakers in other jurisdictions is a blight on racing. Once you cross the line into allowing a horse to be ridden as a pacemaker for a better-fancied stablemate, you are allowing that horse to be run in a manner which may not be in its own best interests, and then I think you cross into very dangerous territory."
That last line, "cross into very dangerous territory" reads prescient after watching the Sword Dancer, doesn't it? Being a rabbit for Flintshire wasn't quite enough, the horse had to be used as an offensive lineman at the head of the lane.  A slippery slope indeed.

It's probably no surprise to frequent readers of the blog that I don't like gaming a race by using another horse to artificially inject pace. I love the pureness of the sport. I love 'my horse can beat your horse' spirit of it. I love the magic of a Zenyatta racing against glacial paces, and then seeing her overcome like the beast she was. I love seeing great horses proving they're great by winning races, not by winning races with help.

Horse racing is a beautiful sport when we let it unfold as it's intended.

Related - "Race Fixing for Me, But Not for Thee", via Crunk



Comments

Tinky said…
"...so another horse from the stable coming from off the pace has a better chance to win."

PTP, the above further underscores how unfamiliar you are with pacemakers. They are not only used to assist late runners, but also to insure a that stamina is tested. In other words, to insure that races are "truly run". This goes back to a point that I made on a previous post below: racing developed as a way to test horses on the track in order to discern the best horse(s). When a horse is able to control a slow to moderate pace, it may will win a given race, but often is not intrinsically the best of the runners. When there is an honest pace, it allows both speed and stamina to be tested, and the winner of such truly run races is far more likely to be objectively the best of the bunch.

If Usain Bolt were to be allowed to trot along on, or around the lead for the first 1300 meters of a 1500 meter race, he would be unbeatable. Would he be the best, true 1500 meter runner in the field? Of course not.

So, while in these days of big money racing, pacemakers are used to help valuable runners increase their earnings and values, the original purpose of such horses remains relevant, and goes to the essence of the game. To ignore that fact is to miss a very important point.

I also find the consistent emphasis of the Sword Dancer to be troubling. As rabbits are very rarely employed in the U.S., it is largely a lost art. Most trainers and riders don't have a clue how to employ them properly. The fact that the rabbit used in the SD was ridden terribly and arguably caused interference has absolutely no bearing on the broader conversation. It was a single horse and event. There is no evidence whatsoever that rabbits, broadly speaking, typically pose some major danger to other runners, or tend to be ridden recklessly.

Your "slippery slope" comment is also unsupportable. If racing officials were to do their jobs, then riders of both rabbits and non-rabbits would be careful to adhere to the rules. To shine the light of blame on the tactic used in the SD, rather than the stewards, is to complete miss that important point.

If rabbits were intrinsically dangerous, or an important turn-off to bettors, then how is it possible that they are easily tolerated in the U.K., the original home of Thoroughbred racing, and a country that consistently features much of the best racing in the world?

Finally, the HKJC steward works in a particularly conservative jurisdiction. I can see the attraction to that kind of conservatism, but his opinion obviously isn't echoed in other major jurisdictions. Furthermore, and again, if pacemakers were intrinsically dangerous, or counter to the best interests of horseplays, then how can you explain why they are so easily tolerated in the U.K. and France, and have been for a century or longer?

Pull the Pocket said…
Tink,

I love ya, but you know you are shoveling it a bit here, don't you? :)
Pacemakers exist for a few main reasons --

The high end of the UK races, and in fact, the authority, has been run by the high end of owners for 200 years.

These owners want to win as many group one's as quickly as possible, so their horse can support the breeding ecosystem they created. If they enter and lose because of a slow pace, it means the horse must prove himself in another, or another and possibly race through age four and five. No bueno, so they devised a plan to fix that.

It's okay to admit it.

I just disagree with the system they created.

Hong Kong does not have to worry about high end breeders, they have to worry about the public betting their races. Thus, they ban pacemakers. Again, that's okay to admit that they feel their customers are the most important cog on the wheel. Hell, they've doubled handle since 2006, when every other racing jurisdiction has not.

"I also find the consistent emphasis of the Sword Dancer to be troubling. As rabbits are very rarely employed in the U.S., it is largely a lost art. Most trainers and riders don't have a clue how to employ them properly. The fact that the rabbit used in the SD was ridden terribly and arguably caused interference has absolutely no bearing on the broader conversation. It was a single horse and event."

As a supporter of rabbits I can see why this race has troubled you. Again I have the opposite view.

I am glad the Sword Dancer happened because it exposed the practice to a massive new audience, and the debate around it, is healthy for horse racing.

I get your point, I truly do. But, as in Hong Kong, horses have to prove themselves on the track to win money. For the breeding shed, if you are compromised by a slow pace in a certain race, just do what the rest of us do, come back another day and race.

PTP





Anonymous said…
It's ironic that the public comments about the Sword Dancer are all about the rabbit & not about Flintshire.

That can't be what they envisioned.
Tinky said…
The Sword Dancer didn't expose "the practice" to fans, it exposed a particularly poor example of the practice. Can you not see that important distinction? To pretend that it was somehow typical of how rabbits are employed is not only wrong, but arguably dishonest.

Show a high-class English race in which a pacemaker takes part to the average fan, and he will almost certainly have no issue with it whatsoever. Your Sword Dancer crusade is tantamount to showing a two minute video of someone doing something stupid when they are drunk, and telling viewers that it "exposes" that person for who he or she is.

In any case, the elephant in the room remains. You have no answer to my question of how, if rabbits are bad for the game, fans who bet billions on racing in France and England have no problem with them? And the reason that you have no answer is because there is no intrinsic problem with them if they are employed properly, and fans are educated to understand why they are used.
Pull the Pocket said…
Hi Tink,

The distinction is, as the Chief Steward from Hong Kong said "it's dangerous precedent." It exposed what can happen, when you screw up with the my horse your horse purity of horse racing.

"In any case, the elephant in the room remains. You have no answer to my question of how, if rabbits are bad for the game, fans who bet billions on racing in France and England have no problem with them?"

There's no elephant in the room. The HKJC, which draws more handle in a week than most meets in Britain and France have banned rabbits, to protect their product. Why haven't you addressed that?

We can go around like this forever :)

I'm glad to see the appeal happened today. More flushing out of the practice. Debate and exposure is good for the game.

PTP

Tinky said…
Hong Kong's handle relates closely to its monopoly on gambling. Apples and oranges.

No one imagines that racing in HK is remotely as important as that it the UK or France.