Johnson ban a move to protect sport's integrity
The BHA's actions were taken with the interests of the wider racing public in mind, writes Ian McClean
It was a colourful career that came to a black end. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) verdict on Friday to ban trainer Howard Johnson for four years for breach of horse welfare rules and drug offences was as unequivocal as it was unambiguous. Moreover, it forced Johnson, who turned 58 just the day before, into immediate and involuntary retirement.
It is a story that has once again dragged racing onto the front pages. The Racing Post yesterday captured the sport's reaction to the verdict in two contrasting front-page headlines, 'A right and just verdict' on one hand was countered by 'They've treated him like a criminal' on the other. Johnson's capacity to polarise opinion endures, it appears, even beyond his professional dishonour.
While Howard Johnson's life away from the racecourse was characterised by turbulence, at least the trainer could console himself that his reputation as one of Britain's leading jumps trainers was intact. Until Friday.
His recent high-profile misfortunes have included an armed robbery when he and wife Sue were held at knife-point last year; a subsequent and ongoing investigation into his tax affairs; an arson attack which ripped through his stables; the theft of half a dozen heavyweight steel gates; a violent falling-out with his son resulting in a dislocated shoulder and the need for surgery to facial lacerations.
And all this against the back-drop of a revolving-door jockey approach which oversaw three top-class senior riders (Graham Lee, Denis O'Regan and Paddy Brennan) depart from Johnson's yard without explanation in the last five years.
Howard Johnson, who has held a licence since 1984, was emotional when he learned of the verdict on Friday. "I wasn't the best at reading the rules of racing," he said. However, the BHA assessment is focused on facts and is far more indicting, saying instead that Johnson "has shown reckless disregard for the rules".
And the rules of which he was found in breach specifically deal with horse welfare.
The level of public sensitivity to the subject of horse welfare is demonstrated in the fact that the third item on BBC Radio 4's headlines at tea-time on Friday (after the riots and the financial crisis) went as follows: "Cruelty in horse racing. On top of the death of two horses in the Grand National, and the public outcry over whip abuse, comes another animal welfare scandal ."
The very ability of horse racing to continue to ply its trade is done so only with the consent and tolerance of the general public. The BHA's role is first and foremost to safeguard that as a primary mission. All other regulation is secondary to the central kernel that those who are licenced by the sport with responsibility for the horses are granted the privilege on the basis that they take due care of those creatures. Based on the investigation, Howard Johnson came up woefully short of discharging that duty in the case of Striking Article.
Due to repeated lameness the horse was given a neurectomy ('de-nerving') operation which removes all feeling from the foot. The horse raced eight times after the operation, strictly forbidden by the rules of racing, before having to be euthanised after breaking down at Musselburgh in February 2010 with a ruptured tendon. The prohibited operation would never have come to light without the mandatory post-mortem examination that followed.
Whereas Johnson described the four-year penalty as "a massive shock", the severity was easily defended by the BHA, which said: "Any lesser penalty would undermine the confidence stakeholders in racing are entitled to hold that reckless disregard of equine welfare will not be tolerated."
"I had no idea we had done anything wrong," Johnson protested in a statement to Channel 4's The Morning Line. Much like those who presided over the financial meltdown, the use of ignorance as a defence means simply that instead of being guilty of intransigence, the guilt is of incompetence. Either, in the privileged position of such responsibility, is unacceptable and unforgivable. The sadder aspect of the whole affair is how it will affect staff, suppliers and the local region and this is made reference to at the foot of the BHA Inquiry Report.
The report states that it "noted and accepted the submissions that any significant period of disqualification may lead to the break-up of Johnson's yard and the immediate redundancy of his stable staff." It is clear then that the BHA wanted to take a stand on what it considers an abuse of the core moral principle associated with training racehorses -- no matter what the consequences.
The verdict takes a stand and follows through. Zero tolerance as it should be.
Sunday Indo Sport