Richard Forristal: Six-day suspension of Andrew Lynch a farce
With chaos reigning at the final fence and Finian’s Rainbow in hot pursuit, Sizing Europe’s jockey Andrew Lynch was hurtling down towards the obstacle at 35mph – with millions of punters’ hard-earned cash and £140,000 worth of prize money on the line. In a nail-biting manoeuvre he somehow managed to steer his mount clear of disaster before being edged out in a dramatic finish. His reward from the stewards? A six-day suspension
In politics, the saying goes that once you're explaining, you're losing.
At Cheltenham yesterday, the British Horseracing Authority felt compelled to issue a lengthy statement defending in-running stewarding procedures that led to farcical scenes in the climax of the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Sizing Europe (above right) had led over what is normally the second-last fence under Andrew Lynch in his bid for back-to-back glory in the most important two-mile chase of the jump season.
An odds-on favourite with millions of punters' hard-earned cash riding on him being first past the post in a Grade One worth £140,000 to the winner, he was being harried by Finian's Rainbow and the irrepressible Barry Geraghty.
And, but for the calamity that followed, we would now be talking about a breathtaking finish that showcased jump racing at its finest. If only.
With Wishfull Thinking's jockey Richard Johnson stricken on the landing side of the last fence after a horrendous fall on the first circuit, a decision had been taken to bypass the jump. In another lifetime, maybe that information could have been radioed ahead to Lynch and Geraghty.
Stuck in the time vortex that we are, we must rely on more quaint methods, so dolls and markers were placed across the fence to direct the riders around the obstacle. Then, due to concerns that a loose horse may traverse the fence and cause further injury to Johnson -- who was being treated for a suspected broken leg, but thankfully suffered only soft tissue damage -- all of the warning signs were transferred to the inside of the fence so as to ensure that a loose horse could not land on Johnson.
Those intentions were noble, and a flagman stood on the inside rail to signal the impending diversion. Recognising the warning signs, Lynch first went to head around the obstacle, then had what might be described as a moment of doubt.
It lasted a millisecond, but when there is so much at stake, he should never have found himself questioning his initial judgment.
Lynch checked back out just in the nick of time and still rounded the fence with a narrow advantage, but all of a sudden the momentum seemed to swing the way of Finian's Rainbow. Geraghty's charge landed the spoils and, on a day when Nicky Henderson entered the history books with a four-timer that brought his Festival haul to a massive 44, might well have done so regardless of the shambles that had ensued.
Then the whip saga reared its ugly head again, with Lynch handed a six-day ban for his efforts. After a barnstorming ride to deliver the first Irish winner of the day on Champagne Fever for his father Willie in the bumper, Patrick Mullins received a two-day whip suspension, while Declan Lavery got seven days in the same Grade One.
You'd think the BHA's energies would be better served elsewhere. They concluded their statement on the bypassing farce: "We are always reviewing our procedures to ensure that they are working effectively and achieving their objectives."
And well they might, having stated that the "correct procedures" had been applied in relation to the final-fence fiasco.
Henry de Bromhead was magnanimous, given the circumstances of his outgoing champion's defeat, and Lynch made no comment, but his colleague Robbie Power, who trailed in 15 lengths behind the runner-up on Big Zeb, summed up the embarrassing episode fairly succinctly.
"It wasn't Cheltenham's finest hour, no doubt about it," he said. "Years ago, over the Grand National fences, they'd put up arrows and you'd jump the outside of the fence, because it was the only way round. But on a park track, I've never seen that.
"The confusion was the lads in front weren't sure whether to jump the outside of the fence or go round it. I was just tipping away behind them, so I had more time to think.
"When you're at racing speed and something like that happens, you should be left in no doubt as to where to go. There was doubt there that shouldn't have been.
"There should have been arrows the whole way across that fence, and the man with the flag should have been standing out in the middle of the track. Those two fences come very quick off the bend and we've enough to be thinking about in a race without worrying whether you do or don't jump it."
The whole affair seemed to sum up the raiders' Festival so far, with two winners the sum total at the halfway point -- which had yielded nine a year ago.
Geraghty, however, was simply brilliant all day long, outgunning the Davy Russell-ridden First Lieutenant on Bobs Worth in the RSA Chase, and guiding Simonsig to a bloodless coup in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle.
Still, with seven of the eight horses that filled the minor places in the opening four races all Irish-trained, it has been a meeting of near misses. Some normal service finally resumed when Champagne Fever made all to grind out a seventh Champion Bumper success for Willie Mullins.
"I'm delighted because we'd got a little despondent about how some of the horses had been running," reported Mullins of the 16/1 shot. He might have been speaking on behalf of the nation.