JUST when I thought that things in the administrative world could not get any worse, they did, though it took a trip to South Africa to discover the elements of an entry and declaration system that, at face value, makes any problems faced by European racehorse owners and trainers look like a little local difficulty.
Having researched the major European racing nations, and thrown in a smattering of the topmost events in North America, Asia and Australia, I thought I had a handle on where the best and worst value was to be had, from an entry and declaration perspective.
Then I met Mike Wankling, who recently relocated from Singapore to his native South Africa to take up the newly created post as manager of handicapping and race planning for the country’s National Horseracing Authority.
“You think there are some early closers around the world, but what about having most of the biggest races wrapped up ten days ahead of the race,” he says. That’s everything done: final declarations, jockeys and draw, the lot. And that’s for the whole programme, usually of eight races, on the particular big-raceday.
“We have about ten big days around the country, and every one has an early declaration for the entire card,” Wankling explains. “The only reason for a horse to be withdrawn after that stage is on veterinary grounds, and perhaps surprisingly we have very few of those. Maybe it’s because the horse can’t then run for a period of 14 days, except with the stewards’ permission.
“I’ve heard the complaints from British trainers, about changes to the going, over the proposed introduction of 48-hour declarations, but we don’t have a culture of people taking out their horses over ground conditions in South Africa.”
With race conditions for major handicaps that allow Wankling to add discretionary weight penalties for winners – but not for other horses that might show improved form – he is happy with his part of the bargain. But while he accepts the need to market and promote the big events, he is not happy with such a length of time between declaration and race day.
“In Hong Kong, for instance, they declare on the Thursday for their international races on the Sunday,” he says. “In Singapore they do the same for the Singapore Airlines Cup, and having declared in the morning, they print the race cards, with owners’ colours, by four o’clock in the afternoon. I’d certainly like to see us cut down the declaration time in South Africa.”
Strange as it may seem, the reason for South Africa’s uncommonly early system for major events can be traced to the country’s printing industry, though the original decision was taken back in the 1970s, with the introduction of exotic bets such as the four-race jackpot.
Derek Wiid, now business development executive for South Africa’s racing and betting company Phumelela, recalls the time when jockeys were not declared until the day of racing, and punters would laboriously enter the names against horses that had been declared two days previously.
Wiid explains: “When the exotic bets were brought in, punters objected to the late changes. They said they wanted extra time to think about their bets, because they were more difficult than straight win bets. So that began the process for earlier declarations.”
However, the big driver came from the demands of the printing and distribution business, which still also explains why South Africa’s everyday races are declared on Tuesdays (for racing on the following Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday) and Thursdays (for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday hence), to produce an array of time lapses that vary between three and seven days.
The relevant information about runners, draw and jockeys is generated by the National Racing Bureau, which takes entries in the way that Weatherbys does in Britain and France-Galop in France, for publication in the official race card and the main form guide, Computaform.
Without a very early declaration stage, it would be impossible to get the information to punters, on and off course, in time to generate appropriate levels of betting turnover, Wiid says.
He explains: “Both Computaform and the race card have small print runs, which are handled individually in each city for racing in Johannesburg and Durban, and sent between the two, which is a five-hour journey by car, while Cape Town does its own printing, and sends them eight hours to the other main cities.
“But on top of that, we have to send the race books from Johannesburg to the rest of Gauteng province, which can be 350km away on difficult farm roads. Distribution is a nightmare.”
The form guide might be Computaform, but transmission and distribution of the printed word has yet to reach the computer age in South Africa – and several other places around the world, come to that.
North America might have had men on the moon, and the declaration system is the shortest on the planet – usually 48 or 72 hours from entry to race, as individual racing secretaries ring trainers to fill races and write substitute events if the original comes up short - but US race fans generally have to go to the track to pick up copies of Daily Racing Form, so vast is the distribution area.
At the other end of the entry and declaration spectrum is Scandinavia, which has much less racing than South Africa, but Norway and Sweden still get their full lists of runners, riders and draw in the bag six days before racing, so that race cards can be printed and distributed to faraway places in good time for punters to pore over their exotic bets.
Denmark manages to get by on a five-day declaration system, but throughout Scandinavia there are generally only a minimal number of absentees from the published cards.
Elsewhere, among the main racing nations of Europe, the time-lag between entry, declaration and running is usually shorter, except – and there always seem to be an exception in this topic – for Group and Listed races.
Yet there are as many systems as there are countries, and the reasons for the differences are often more to do with working practice within the relevant racing authority than practicality within the racing community.
Outside the Pattern system – but sometimes within it – Britain revolves round a five-day entry system, which, like most changes now taken for granted, caused consternation and furore among the training fraternity when it was introduced.
But – yes, there has to be a but – entries for races on Fridays and Sundays are made six days ahead, because Weatherbys only takes overnight declarations on a Sunday, so entries for Friday racing are made the previous Saturday, and Sunday racing involves a 48-hour declaration stage, so entries are made on a Monday.
Weatherbys takes no entries on Tuesdays or Sundays. On the other hand, the Irish Turf Club office is closed on a Saturday, takes no entries on a Sunday, and runs an entry system covering four, five and six days.
As for declarations, British owners, trainers and punters have had to keep on their toes. The general overnight declaration stage, which enables the runners, riders and draw to be printed in newspapers on the day of racing, has been gradually extended to 48 hours for Group 1 races, Sunday race meetings, all-weather track racing during the winter period, and some of the major handicaps, such as the Grand National.
Group 1 races, Sundays and ‘heritage’ handicaps were brought forward to provide extra time for marketing and promotion, either through the media or by way of ante-post betting.
But all this could soon be academic, if Britain introduces a universal 48-hour declaration from July 1, as has been accepted in principle. Universal, that is, for Flat racing. Jump racing will be the exception. There had to be an exception.
France does things differently. France takes no entries on a Saturday or a Sunday, which means the entry cycle varies between seven, eight and nine days. However, there is a 72-hour declaration stage, followed by a 48-hour cancellation, which enables Paris-Turf to print the French race cards at all manner of times through the week, to the confusion of those infrequent overseas visitors used to seeing the day’s events laid out before them.
Germany does things even more differently than Britain, Ireland and France, since it runs a five-day declaration system, with a four-day cancellation stage that produces the final fields.
However, the Direktorium operates a very strict entry system – all regular races close on a Tuesday, so that its official racing calendar can be printed the same day, even though it is dated two days later. Very easy to remember, but it does produce a variable period from entry to race day of between eight and 14 days.
Of course, that’s not counting Group and Listed anomalies piled on normal anomalies, such as Cologne’s Winterfavoriten for two-year-olds, which will be run late this autumn for horses entered in November 2005, and a Krafeld juvenile race that closed in March for a September renewal. The racecourses and the Direktorium make the rules.
And so to Italy, which has taken the single-day entry stage to even greater lengths than Germany. Italy’s chosen day of the week is Thursday, when there is generally no racing.
This means that the time-lag between putting a horse into a race and getting it to the races, after the universal 48-hour declaration, can be as short as nine days and as long as 15. Why? Please ask UNIRE, though history suggests that the answer may not be immediately forthcoming.
As if this catalogue of differences is not confusing enough, no mention has yet been made of supplementary entries and the Pattern-race system, which throws up a myriad of dates, as some countries seek to boost prize-money from early cash contributions from breeders and owners, and others strive to bring entry as close as possible to the day of racing, so as to ensure that the best possible field gathers.
Mindblowing is a word that comes to mind, especially when you factor in the need to verify entries, which means that Irish horses running in Britain have to be notified a day ahead of the home contingent, and vice versa, and that France-Galop asks for details of intended runners from overseas to be dispatched to the Paris HQ eight days before entry, so that the information can be loaded on to the main database and race weights checked.
Mindblowing, that is, until you speak to James Fry, who heads the trainers’ service at the International Racing Bureau in Newmarket.
The IRB and Weatherbys are authorised to take and make entries from Britain, but the commercial enterprise that Fry oversees has the added value of leading their clients by the hand through the minefield of entry and declaration, with a service of going reports and form guides generally pointing clients farther in the right direction.
How does Fry cope with the plethora of variations on a theme?
“I keep it up here,” he says, knowingly, tapping the back of his head. “I always try to instil self discipline. I start a job and will see it through. Perhaps I don’t delegate enough, but it comes from years and years of practice, though I still wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Did I do that?’ or ‘I must remember to do that tomorrow.’
“We get a lot of help from the trainers and particularly their secretaries. Some of them leave things a little late, but that’s why the clock in the office is always five minutes fast!”
So that’s the secret, which explains why former trainer Toby Balding sums up: “Weatherbys and the IRB do a great job, if you leave it to them.
“The people who get into trouble are usually the ones who try to do overseas entries and declarations themselves, and don’t read the small print.”