Time is likely to eventually see 2021 get recalled as the racing year of Rachael Blackmore. Or of her ally Henry de Bromhead and his big race 'Grand Slam'. There's even time for a star like St Mark's Basilica to become a proper champion on the Flat. But in the here and now it feels like racing is playing some bizarre game of reputational Russian Roulette.
There have been so many car-crash scenarios in 2021 it seems like the sport is permanently braced for impact.
The latest came at the Galway Festival when circumstances conspired to produce an embarrassing case of mistaken identity. Renowned trainer Jessica Harrington inadvertently ran the three-year-old filly Aurora Princess in a two-year-old maiden race instead of her stable companion Alizarine who 'won'.
The two horses are apparently very similar in appearance and Harrington’s representative mixed them up when saddling up ‘Alizarine’. Only the paranoid can suspect anything but human error. For those involved it was mortifying. But considering what else has occurred in the sport this year embarrassment is hardly the worst outcome.
Except this was preventable. The mistake was found when the ‘winner’ had her identity microchip scanned after the race. Had the horse been scanned before the race – entering the parade ring for example – the error would have been discovered and embarrassment avoided. And it’s not like such a situation wasn’t predictable either.
A series of similar identity blunders prompted Britain’s racing authorities to scan all horses on arrival at a racecourse and, crucially, when leaving for the parade ring. The move wasn’t mirrored here. After last week’s cock-up chances are it will which, rather like scanning after a race rather than before, is more than a bit like shutting the stable door when the horse has bolted.
But that seems to be Irish racing’s default position at the moment.
The Galway mix-up was minor in comparison to the previous week’s BBC Panorama examination into what happens racehorses after their racing careers are over. A lot of unsettling elements emerged, none more so than the highlighting of how up to 2,000 thoroughbreds a year are euthanised in Irish abattoirs.
It presents the sector with fundamental challenges on a number of levels, perhaps most pertinently in relation to over-production and how the traceability of thoroughbreds is still far too imprecise. In response, the overriding impression once again has been of a sport and industry reacting on the hoof.
This sense of putting out fires extended to one other little element of the Galway story. Anyone betting on Alizarine couldn’t win because she didn’t run. Fairness would suggest they should get their money back. But they didn’t because the ‘winner’ was disqualified, the rationale apparently being that there had to be a disqualification of something.
In itself it is a little more than a discomfiting detail. However, on the back of everything else that has occurred during this ‘annus horribilis’ it underlines how a sport accustomed to keeping things in-house continually finds itself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It has been found wanting in the public glare.
Whether it has been in relation to Jim Bolger's claims about drugs and his distrust of the regulator, the fall-out from the Viking Hoard 'nobbling' scandal, that notorious image of Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse, as well as any continuing fall-out from the Stephen Mahon animal welfare case, the impression is of a sector lurching from one crisis to another in permanent reactive mode.
Put all together it smacks of playing catch-up with structural and systemic problems that could and should have been properly addressed long before now. Instead, and at a time of unprecedented success on the racetrack, off it there has been a glut of ad hoc fire-fighting with an unavoidable sense of what next?
Inevitably there are some within the sport whose response to such scrutiny is defiance. That is a luxury racing cannot afford. There is almost €77 million of Government funding going into it this year. The public is entitled to believe that in return for such support best practice should apply. No other country in the world has as much tied up in racing.
Much of the focus from the recent Oireachtas Agriculture Committee’s hearings related to the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) and how it is essentially a self-policing private club of industry members. There was consensus about the need for change, especially in relation to perceptions of conflicts of interest between those being policed and those doing the policing.
In an ideal world those at the top of the IHRB would be perfectly impartial and independent with no vested interests to any part of the game, either racing, breeding or betting. But in that ideal world they would somehow combine all that with the expertise and intimate knowledge of who and what they are policing in order to do the job properly. It’s an unlikely mix in reality.
Ultimately what so much of what has occurred this year underlines is how much Irish racing has needed to cop itself on. The IHRB and Horse Racing Ireland are representations of the sector as a whole. And racing as a whole has to acknowledge that phrases like accountability and transparency aren’t just buzz words but a prerequisite to building solid foundations for a sustainable future.
So much of what has hit it this year was preventable if the will had existed to structurally take the initiative. Feet have been dragged for years on lifetime drug-testing and traceability. Provision for better security measures in stable-yards was made but not implemented. Even a comparatively trivial cock-up like Alizarine at Galway was hardly impossible to anticipate.
Even if at times it appears like it is being done begrudgingly, racing is finally moving towards implementing much needed structural upgrades. In some ways it is better placed to cope with public scrutiny than ever. Short-term embarrassment now could be the price for future sustainability. If it is then 2021 will have proven to be an important year off the racetrack too.