Monday 5 December 2016

Confusion rules in theatre of the absurd

British racing still has questions to answer after its whip rules saga turned to farce, writes Ian McClean

Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00

Nacarat and Paddy Brennan on their way to victory at Kempton
Nacarat and Paddy Brennan on their way to victory at Kempton

Fourth time lucky? As climbdowns go this one is right up there with the Eiger. Newly appointed CEO Paul Bittar certainly wasted no time in grasping the authority at the British Horseracing Authority, and the Australian's opening tour de force on the whip issue has mixed things up in a way that is neither very British, nor very horseracing.

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The unravelling of the past five months has been theatre at its most absurd. The dénouement is that in an effort to improve the whip rules, through four consecutive changes, the BHA has moved the sport from ambiguity, to absolute clarity, back to absolute ambiguity -- and brought unsolicited heartache and negative publicity along on the ultimately pointless odyssey that was totally unnecessary.

In presiding over this four-act farce, inevitably the decision to complete a U-turn on the whip regulation after months of rancour has divided opinion bitterly. The jockeys are delighted in one corner; the RSPCA despairing in the other and everybody else is somewhere in between. Whatever about the rectitude of the final, or perhaps latest, act at the BHA, if its role is to lead, and leadership's core ingredients are to inspire and unite, then the last few months have been above all else a cataclysmic failure of leadership. At least Paul Bittar, as new broom, has acted decisively. However, there are still many questions to answer in this poorly conceived and executed affair . . .

1 What was the point of all the months of previous consultation?

At the end of September, BHA chairman Paul Roy described the work done in preparing to amend the rule as "an incredibly wide-ranging piece of work resulting in a comprehensive review the authority can be proud of . . . in the best interests of the sport and its participants". Jamie Stier, BHA director and frontline in the consultation process, added: "What was clear amongst virtually all those consulted was that the status quo could not be retained". So, in summary, all stakeholders were consulted over a period of painstaking months and the central unanimous conclusion was that things couldn't remain as they were. The findings were reviewed by the BHA's disciplinary review group and approved by the board. And now, just five months later, we are where exactly? Back where we were. Right. Glad that's tidied up.

2 Remind us of the main driving force behind instigating the changes in the first place?

Optics count for everything and racing's number one shop window is the Aintree Grand National. The victory of Ballabriggs last spring and Jason Maguire's 17 strokes after the last fence brought the use of the whip into sharp public focus and highlighted how in prestigious, high-profile events jockeys were prone to disregard the rules as the stakes increased. As late as Royal Ascot, Frankie Dettori used the whip 24 times in the final quarter mile on board Rewilding in the Prince of Wales's Stakes. The objective in seeking change then was to appease public perception and give jockeys a clearer mechanism to ensure the guidelines were not flaunted so blatantly, particularly on the very occasions of highest audience profile.

3 And where does the latest BHA act leave us with regards to the original objective with Cheltenham on the horizon?

Paul Bittar's assertion that "a rule which polices use of the whip based solely on a fixed number of strikes is fundamentally flawed" is factually and scientifically correct. It is just a shame then that the BHA framed the fundamental overhaul of the rules on precisely that flawed premise in the first place. However, in upending the new regulation, the BHA has deeply spoiled relations with the RSPCA and others in the

welfare lobby. An RSPCA press release spoke of "a black day" for racing and of jockeys being "allowed to beat horses with impunity" concluding it was "quickly becoming difficult" for the RSPCA to continue its support of racing. What has happened here is like giving a child a toy it never should have had in the first place to placate it, and then taking it back. Unnecessary collateral damage has been inflicted by the BHA.

The difficulty now is of course that in an effort to overthrow the fundamentally flawed rules on the whip in advance of the greatest show on turf in the Cotswolds a fortnight next Tuesday, the pendulum has swung from clarity to confusion. Nobody now knows precisely what the new guidelines entail. Stewards know only that a jockey who uses his whip more than eight times (seven on the Flat) will trigger an overall review of his ride, where he would previously have received an automatic ban. By vesting so much in the discretion of stewards, the BHA nearly guarantees complaints about inconsistency -- the precise situation the new rules were designed to avoid. And with the removal of the draconian penalties for jockeys, where is the deterrent now to getting carried away on the big occasions?

One can't help being reminded of the old Jewish tailor's proverb, 'Measure twice -- cut once'. In this case, the last cut is the deepest.

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