Thursday 25 May 2017

Bizarrely

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

In the week that the BHA had hoped to attract the wider media's attention with its Champions Day initiative, it succeeded in doing so for all the wrong reasons.

The controversy surrounding the new whip rules that were introduced last Monday reached a crescendo when Richard Hughes announced his decision to quit the saddle in protest over the sanctions at Kempton on Thursday night.

In failing to get More Than Words up by a neck in an all-weather maiden worth £3,441 -- of which the winner would get £2,264 -- at the meeting, Hughes struck the 6/5 favourite six times inside the final furlong.

Only five strikes are permitted within the final furlong under the new limits. Because it was Hughes' second infringement in 12 months -- the first coming last Monday, resulting in a five-day ban -- the Kildare-born rider incurred a 10-day ban on this occasion. He also had to forfeit his riding fee and purse percentage.

More than that, Hughes will miss next month's Breeders' Cup as a result of the bans, meaning that he will be unable to ride Strong Suit, one of the favourites for the Mile, a race worth $2m.

In a further twist, Strong Suit is owned by Sheikh Fahad, a racing newcomer who has ploughed a small fortune into today's £3m Ascot carnival, which Hughes has opted to sit out until a review of the rules takes place. You couldn't make this stuff up.

In summary, then, the net result of Hughes doing his best to win a meaningless £2k race on the all-weather is that he is now ruled out of one of international racing's showpiece events for what was, by any standard, a minor infringement.

That is the injustice of the new sanctions. Understandably enough, riders feel that the drastic new punishments far outweigh their crimes. If Hughes were to deviate again within a 12-month period, he could be in line for a minimum 15-day ban.

Bizarrely, he would receive much less of a ban if he were found guilty of making insufficient effort, and this is the type of anomaly that has transpired since the changes were initially welcomed with general approval by riders.

Two weeks ago, Hughes said: "The new rules now seem fair to everyone."

Like many others, he felt that their clearly defined nature, which eliminates stewards' need for interpretation or discretion, meant that everyone knew where they stood.

"I'm not a whip jockey," he added, somewhat regrettably in hindsight, "so I won't have to adapt the way I ride, but there are lots of lads out there who are now going to struggle. Even so, to be fair to everyone, the whip rules have to be strict."

So the problem isn't necessarily the principle of more stringent rules.

The BHA felt that, while most within the industry accept that air-cushioned felt whips cause horses no pain, the wider perception in the modern world is less accepting.

Jockeys agreed, and asked for "simple clear rules", but instead got an array of inconsistencies.

For example, the maximum number of hits now allowed in any Flat race is seven. Over jumps, it is eight, with five permitted after the final obstacle.

What that means is that if you are riding in a five-furlong dash you can use the stick on seven occasions, yet in a three-and-a-half-mile handicap chase you can use it just once more.

Furthermore, it matters not whether the run-in from the last obstacle is the 440-yard climb at Kelso or the 200-yard scurry at Fakenham -- five is five.

That kind of thing is plainly nonsensical.

My own viewpoint initially was that if you couldn't win on a horse when allowed to hit it eight times, then your riding style needed addressing.

Jockeys are often directed not to hit certain horses at all -- usually less controversially than in the infamous The Real Article affair -- and the new rules would eventually improve race-riding skills.

Yes, horses such as Brave Inca or Deano's Beano might never have achieved what they did under these rules, but whip abuse is the one thing that prompts a lot of people to give the game a wide berth, and the game desperately needs to attract supporters.

This issue is a world apart from the unnecessary alterations that were made to the Aintree Grand National course, because the National is an intrinsic part the game.

John Francome, the former champion jockey, has often proposed to have a trial period where the whip is outlawed completely except for corrective purposes.

While that may well be worth experimenting with, such a measure is probably unnecessary.

The whip doesn't need to be banned and the current rules clearly need fine-tuning, but incidents like that which earned Jason Maguire a five-day ban in this year's National -- when he hit the winner Ballabriggs 17 times on the run-in -- and the Royal Ascot incident that earned Frankie Dettori a nine-day holiday -- for striking the winner Rewilding 24 times in two furlongs -- had to be weeded out.

One red herring being bandied about at the moment by some jockeys is that they would have won if they "could have given it one more slap".

slap

If you could have given it one more slap, though, so could the jockey on the winner. It's a level playing field.

That all said, the new penalties are quite obviously excessive.

Firstly, that a rider must forfeit his fee for trying too hard is wrong; race-riding is a dangerous business, and the only time a rider should not be paid is when he is found guilty of not trying.

The other thing that is patently clear is that the BHA has made a terrible mess of implementing the new rules, not least in timing. Instead of removing the whip from the agenda, it is now the main agenda on their most valuable day's racing ever.

Lest we forget, the whip rules get flouted worst when there is most at stake, which could yet make today's activity an even more compelling watch.

Pull up a chair.

Irish Independent

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