The old saying is actually the wrong way around

Anyone who thinks top level sportspeople don’t teeter on the brink of acceptability and sometimes topple over it most likely still has the Tooth Fairy on Speed Dial. That is not to condone those who go too far – even within the bounds of allowing for stretching things – but trying to convince oneself it doesn’t happen is akin to trying to live ones life commensurate to that of an ostrich.

Crossing that line means different things in different sports. There’s no need to illustrate them here, but, pertinent to what you will read hereafter, in horse racing, pushing the limits generally can go in one of two directions. But here’s the thing, one of what’s regarded as cheating should never be as such. What it actually amounts to is the system being used exactly as it was intended.

Reference is of course being made to handicapping. For those not au fait with horse racing parlance or the workings thereof, it is literally the process of – to paraphrase John Giles’ favourite line – letting every horse run on its merits. Put simply, the better a horse is, the more weight it’ll carry. And the opposite is also true.

However, even though nobody would dare to admit as such, every person who has ever owned or trained a horse has, at some point or other, worked the handicapping system to the best advantage of the horses they have in their care. As an owner, that is about all you could ask for.

Which is only possible because getting ‘ mark’ – very loosely like a footballer’s value in the transfer market – allows them run against horses of similar strength. Rather than, to use another football comparison – putting Wrexham straight from their current domain in the National League into the Premier League.

Continuing the football them, just as horses can be promoted up the handicap with good results, their ‘mark’ will drop if a horse goes on a run of bad ones.

Thus, it is not stretching reality to assert that some trainers owe their very continued existence in business to the availability of handicap races. While for others, it allows them to get horses who might not be in the top echelons in their yard to a level where they and their owners get their big day(s) out. Look no further than Hunt Ball and owner Anthony Knott.

Nick Scholfield and owner Anthony Knott aboard Hunt Ball

Yet, in Ireland this week, the IHRB suspended Co Armagh trainer Ronan McNally for TWELVE YEARS. Yes, there were significantly more matters at play than the alleged ‘Stopping’ of horses, and the trainer did absolutely deserve a lenghty suspension.

But 12 bloody years? There are some of the most hardened criminals in this country didn’t get bed and breakfast in Mountjoy for that long. And it would be readily wagered many of them weren’t or don’t be lying idle for too long when they check out.

In contrast, not only is Mr McNally’s immediate livelihood irrevocably damaged, the severity of the penalties imposed would leave it nigh on impossible to once again integrate himself back into the sport after such an absense. Just as similarly mammoth suspensions effectively finished the training careers of handlers Pat Hughes and J. Howard Johnson.

What’s most galling about the above cases is that (a) coupling those two long bans with the ridiculous one meted out to another trainer over a photo which was covertly taken and nefariously leaked to the media and then (b) comparing them to the relatively flimsy sanctions imposed on certain individuals for matters of much greater gravity. Or in one case, no reprimand at all for an entity whose complicitness in one set of dodgy dealings was so obvious it would knock your socks (or shoes) off.

All of which makes the disqualification dispensed to McNally all the more unpalatable to digest. It certainly gives lie to the old dictum that ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’.

This was yet another scandalous example of the small man being scapegoated when blind eyes are turned to other corners. For it is important to state there were at least two other less prominent operators hauled over the coals for what, if it were others involved, would be much ado about nothing compared to this case of (very) selective outrage.

Ronan McNally

Perhaps the most galling thing about the whole sorry affair is that there was no mention of Mr McNally – or the others to whom censure was dispensed – having leave appeal. Even the residents in the big house in Phibbsboro get that much.

Hope and expectation would be that there may be a few chapters to go this story yet. One thing there has been little if any acknowledgement of is McNally’s genuine acumen at his job.

Remember, he did manage to keep the remarkable See Double You sound and racing to his 17th year and – even more significantly – sent out The Jam Man to win the Troytown Chase and thereafter compete at the Cheltenham Festival.

If it were possible, you wouldn’t blame him if he followed the lead of Adrian Keatley and Mark Loughnane and Paddy Neville in re-locating their training operations to the UK.

Tubbs McNally after riding a winner at The Curragh

I’m not sure what age a person has to be to take out a training license but even if the McNally operation had to wait a while before 13-year-old Kian ‘Tubbs’ can take the reins, there won’t be a dry eye in the house!

If you’re unaware of his story, do yourself a favour and brighten your day, go look his story up on YouTube. The kid’s a star.

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