Our man tackles the big issues from Royal Ascot
Our man tackles the big issues from Royal Ascot

Graham Cunningham on Jim Bolger, the Stunning Beauty debacle and more

Graham Cunningham tries to make sense of Jim Bolger's drug claims before tackling issues from Royal Ascot including the Stunning Beauty debacle.

Royal Ascot is approaching the halfway mark and it isn’t only the weather that is tricky to predict. Bookies have had the edge over punters for the most part but there is still all to play for and GC addresses several key talking points in this week’s Cunningham File.

Hard evidence still AWOL as Bolger goes back into battle

Irish trainer Jim Bolger
Jim Bolger

Irish racing either has a major drug problem with an inefficient ruling body who are soft pedalling or an ageing and anxious training genius who sees ghosts round every corner.

There is zero middle ground amid Jim Bolger’s latest round of doping allegations and the fact that the old maestro called the tune again with Poetic Flare on Tuesday shouldn’t mask the fact that this is racing’s equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson insisting that some Premier League teams are going into battle with far more than a half time orange to boost them.

Ger Lyons shares Bolger’s fierce independent streak and a suspicion that the Irish Horse Racing Board aren’t doing enough to clean up Dodge, while the Mirror’s Dave Yates feels anyone who loves racing needs to read Paul Kimmage’s Sunday Independent interview with the Kilkenny curmudgeon.

And, having read the Kimmage piece several times and digested Bolger’s latest appearance on Nick Luck’s podcast, several reasonable conclusions can be drawn.

  1. The fact that Bolger purposely chose a comparison with the last day of the Tour de France suggests he is convinced that doping is occurring not just in workaday races but also at the very highest levels of Irish racing.
  2. The fact that he insists that “my staff know more about it than I do because they are right in the mix” is hardly the sort of compelling testimony to make a Judge don the black cap.
  3. The fact that Bolger also says “rest assured I know who they are” before revealing that he declined to name names in two IHRB meetings seems bizarre, if somewhat typical of this complex man.
  4. And, although his reluctance to end up in Court by naming names is understandable, Bolger’s insistence that the IHRB have wilfully failed to level charges when evidence shows they are warranted is the sort of accusation that ought to have any regulator with a functioning spine reaching for the disrepute section of the rule book.

The initial IHRB response made no mention of Bolger’s latest blast, its worthy tone stressing that every winner will be among 5000 tests conducted in and out of training this year, while chief vet Lynn Hillyer came over as an impressive and articulate advocate for the current system on Lucky’s Tuesday bulletin.

But the abiding recollection of this latest episode for most people will be of former Tour rider Kimmage saying that “I’m seeing a lot of parallels with pro cycling here” and Bolger responding with “well, there will be a Lance Armstrong in Irish racing.”

Irish experts such as Kevin Blake will doubtless give their considered reaction in print from close to the heart of the action once Ascot is over but it’s vital that this incendiary debate doesn’t get defused by media and official inactivity over the next few months.

With respect to Kimmage, who has been crusading against sports doping for decades, clear parallels between racing and the historically toxic culture of cycling just aren’t backed up by much reliable hard evidence at this point.

And, with respect to Bolger, it’s probably best not to reach for the Trump playbook and talk about draining the swamp if you aren’t even prepared to name the alleged reptiles when Irish racing’s head zookeepers come to call.

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Poetic power the standout image as Royal week rolls on

Sum up the highs and lows of the first two days of Ascot then fire in a winner or two for Thursday in half. They don’t ask for much at Sporting Life HQ but here goes….

Palace Pier and Love were highly efficient without providing ‘Wow’ moments in the Queen Anne and Prince of Wales’s Stakes, while Oxted bounced back with a thrilling King’s Stand success, but that man Bolger has supplied the highlight so far and his Guineas hero Poetic Flare recorded the peak Timeform rating of the first two days with a 128 figure for his runaway St James’s Palace win.

Jim Bolger has confidence in Poetic Flare
Jim Bolger says he had confidence in Poetic Flare

The emergence of new faces like Marco Ghiani, Laura Pearson and David Loughnane has been great to see and the fact that you could have bought the three juvenile winners – Berkshire Shadow, Quick Suzy and Chipotle – for a combined total of under £70,000 gives real and much needed hope to anyone who dreams of shining on the biggest stage of all.

Ascot seldom lacks humour, and the annual hand wringing about the effects of the draw has been comical to watch again, but the main knock on this week so far has to be the cringeworthy case of Stunning Beauty being declared a runner in Wednesday’s Kensington Palace Stakes.

The well backed Godolphin filly had no chance to start – her head still covered by a blindfold as the gates crashed opened – but the fact that Silvestre de Sousa was still on her back at the time gave the stewards no power under the existing rules to declare her a non-runner.

Watch a full replay for this race - and it's FREE
Judge for yourself over Stunning Beauty's start by watching our free video replay

Taken to its extreme, the current British rule – which surely has to be tweaked on the back of this - means that a horse who suffers a fatal heart attack in the stalls could be declared a runner if its jockey is still in the irons.

Hong Kong stewards have far more discretion in such cases and it was fascinating – and sobering - to receive a message soon after Tuesday’s confusion from a punting pal based there who likes nothing better than diving into the World Pool in search of value.

“I’ve had a few bets at Ascot over the last two days and well up after Oxted and Quick Suzy,” he said. “But I’m putting the cue in the rack now. I can’t cope with that.”

Fierce competition a template for life beyond lockdown

Blue skies for day one of Royal Ascot
Blue skies at Royal Ascot 2021

Welcome to the most elegantly attired Petri dish on planet earth.

Another eager batch of racegoers are filing into Ascot for day three of the royal meeting as I type and, by the time the last stragglers weave their merry way home on Saturday night, it will be time for a reckoning in more ways than one.

Off course bookies will soon be making up for lockdown losses if they can get a few more longshots home, while Government data crunchers can start assessing whether Ascot’s numerous Covid measures have had the desired effect provided enough of those on site send in their follow-up PCR results next week.

Carefully placed leaks meant no-one was surprised when it was confirmed that next week’s planned end to lockdown restrictions is to be delayed for another four weeks. But as Britain prepares for “one last heave” racing needs to take a deep breath and start preparing for a leaner and meaner life after lockdown.

The idea that crowds will flock back to the track in their old numbers as soon as freedom is restored seems fanciful – witness the fact that Ascot only welcomed 8,404 visitors from a maximum allocation of 12,000 on Wednesday - and racecourses are going to have to be more resourceful than ever if they want to make money again this summer.

But, beyond that, the need to create a racing programme that suits the betting public as well as the industry is there for all to see.

It’s clearly impossible to replicate the fiercely competitive nature of a festival like Ascot on a week-to-week basis but, if nothing else, a meeting like this marks a startling contrast with the regular and unappealing midweek diet of small fields that have become the norm.

Somewhere in the middle lies a racing programme that serves the horse population while simultaneously providing the sort of appealing betting races that helps betting turnover reach its full potential. I

t’s a tough task – no question – but the BHA has to find the answer as the sport starts to plan what life beyond lockdown will look like.

Buick ban a big blow to title dream

The range of replies one casual social media post can generate seldom fails to disappoint and my late Tuesday night Tweet suggesting it was hard to watch the replay of the Ascot Stakes and “think anything egregious occurred” prompted a small but select response.

John Hynes reacted to William Buick’s 11-day ban for use of the whip on 66-1 winner Reshoun by making the entirely sensible point that “if you haven’t got the best angle it can be deceptive.”

A chap called Michael described it as a “mad decision” set to be overturned on appeal, while an angry Jean Rose felt that cases such as this will “be the death of racing” unless winners who break the whip rules are demoted.

Three vastly differing views – and yet all have merit. Lengthy Ascot bans are nothing new – Frankie Dettori got nine days for excessive use on Rewilding in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes in 2011 – but it’s worth repeating that riders offend far less nowadays despite the fact that they are held to a far stricter standard than a decade ago.

Perhaps another angle of the Ascot Stakes would tell a different tale. Or maybe Jean is right in suggesting that demoting those who stray on the wrong side of the line will eventually have to lose the race. Either way, Buick is set to miss a fair chunk of the summer season – and that represents a serious blow to his hopes of finally landing a first championship.

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