Wednesday 29 March 2017

Jockeys on tightrope between owners and punters

Owners' interests should always come first even if punters get stung, says John O'Brien

I T has often been asked in racing circles over the years why Noel Meade persevered with the troubled genius that was Paul Carberry, as wild and unpredictable, they said, as any unbroken foal that ever passed through the gate of Meade's stable. All those scrapes with racing's authorities, all those brushes with the law. Carberry would have tested the patience of a saint, yet Meade always stood behind his stable jockey. Why?

The most plausible answer was available at Leopardstown on Tuesday. It wasn't simply the way Carberry, in typically neat fashion, steered Pandorama home to win the Lexus Chase and set Meade dreaming of a tilt at the Gold Cup in March. A month earlier, Carberry had ridden the horse in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and, sensing he wasn't comfortable, eased the horse before pulling up after they jumped the seventh fence.

It was noticeable after the Lexus that, in praising the pilot, Meade reached back to Newbury rather than Leopardstown. In the Hennessy, Pandorama was running for only the fourth time over fences and Carberry had the experience to prevent the horse enduring any more hardship than was necessary. Not every jockey would have had such foresight, and Meade clearly appreciated the gift. The jockey had minded the horse and ensured there would be another day.

The day after the Lexus, Davy Russell produced a similar scenario when First Lieutenant held off the late run of Zaidpour in the Future Champions' Novice Hurdle. In his previous run the Mouse Morris-trained gelding had started odds-on favourite at Fairyhouse, but appeared to hit a flat spot mid-race before running on late to finish third. Russell then returned to angry scenes in the parade ring. One punter, according to Jonathan Mullin in Thursday's Racing Post, had flung a bottle in the jockey's direction.

Speaking to Mullin, however, Russell remained typically defiant in the face of criticism. At Fairyhouse he felt First Lieutenant was immature and not yet ready for a demanding test in heavy ground. Ultimately, he did what he felt was right for the horse. He said what many jockeys would not care to admit: he rode with the horse's connections in mind, not the punter.

"I've always been a man to look after a horse," he said. "That's the way I ride them and that's not going to change. Of course, people lose money backing horses that I ride and horses I don't. But I don't ride around thinking that, you can't. It's not in a jockey's mindset to do anything he thinks might be detrimental to the horse's future. Especially the good ones like this fellow. You don't do it. You owe too much to him and his owner."

Russell is to be commended for his honesty, but his words point to the uneasy relationship that exists at the heart of racing and the perennial struggle it faces to align discordant forces.

On the one hand it's difficult to blame riders who feel honour-bound to ride with only a mind for those who pay their wages while also feeling sympathy for punters who see another barrier placed before them in their struggle to beat the odds.

There is a line to be reached, of course, but it is vague and hard to define. Tony McCoy is currently at

loggerheads with a racing channel which suggested he had ridden a JP McManus-owned horse too tenderly at Ascot last October. Even the winning-most jockey of all time isn't spared close scrutiny. And when it is perceived that a jockey hasn't tried hard enough, punters complain that it is an affront to a group without whose contributions, via the betting levy, racing couldn't be sustained.

Yet it is over-egging it to claim that punters are the most important ingredient in racing's food chain. The sport would struggle without their financial input, but if the evidence of other countries with betting systems less open to manipulation or corruption is considered, there's no reason to believe it would become extinct. Remove the owners, however, those willing to invest large sums of money on an expensive hobby, and racing dies on its feet. As sure as night follows day.

Whether racing has the heart to tackle this obvious dichotomy is debatable. Maybe there is no ultimate solution anyway, beyond more rigorous regulation and more stoical acceptance from punters that the investment they make will always be subject to more variable forces than they would like.

Sunday Indo Sport

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