Monday 19 March 2018

Common sense must prevail as rules whip up controversy

Authorities have taken action to boost the sport's image but they can't seem to win, writes John O'Brien

FROM the stands it has been a strange experience watching British racing tear itself apart over an issue as seemingly trivial as the use of the whip. This is a sport that has serious, deep-rooted problems: an increasing shortfall in funding, a chronic inability to attract new customers. Who would have guessed that animal welfare was up there with them?

The odd thing is that the heated debate that followed the implementation of the new rules last Monday hasn't followed easily assumed lines. There are those you might automatically ascribe as old-school, Ferdy Murphy and John McCririck among them, who have enthusiastically embraced the clampdown. There are jockeys, past and present, who see a future where whips have no place at all. And then there is Richard Hughes.

The Kildare-born jockey was among the first victims of the new rule at Salisbury on Monday when he struck his mount, Swift Blade, six times inside the final furlong, incurring a five-day ban and forfeiting both his riding fee and prize-money. He fell foul of the rules again at Kempton three days later in precisely the same circumstances and, because it was a repeat offence, his suspension was doubled to 10 days.

Clearly, Hughes' punishment was excessive. The new rules stipulate that a Flat jockey can hit a horse seven times in total but only five times inside the final furlong. At Kempton Hughes struck More Than Words seven times but still broke the rules because six of them came after the furlong pole. As a consequence he will miss next month's Breeders' Cup, a punishment patently out of step with the crime.

Hughes had barely left the stewards' room when he vented his anger, dropping the bombshell that he was relinquishing his riding licence in protest. Yet this probably wasn't as impulsive a decision as it sounded, rather a result of the frustration that had been building since the start of the week and a growing awareness that somebody, preferably a senior jockey, had to take a stand.

It goes without saying that Hughes' absence is a blow to a sport that needs its brightest stars on the stage, visible on the days when audience figures are highest. In his brilliant Racing Post column Hughes articulated his embarrassment at stealing the focus from yesterday's historic Champions Day at Ascot, but the mess wasn't of his making and his fears about being labelled a "whip jockey" were entirely understandable.

Yet we should be clear about the most appropriate target of Hughes' anger. While it was tempting to point the finger at the British Horseracing Authority -- the regulatory body that conceived and implemented the rules -- Hughes surely would have been better off venting his spleen towards the Professional Jockeys Association, of which he himself is a member.

Hughes' contention that it was "a lie" that jockeys had been consulted about the changes is at odds with the statement released by the PJA when the BHA's review findings were made public last month. "We have worked closely with the BHA during this important review for racing," said PJA chief executive Kevin Darley, "and have been consulted throughout."

For Hughes' claim to stand up, this contradiction needs to be squared. Remember too that the jockeys didn't like the old rules either and had been pushing for change. What they wanted was clarity, a precise number, and that's exactly what the BHA gave them. "Concise and easy to understand," Darley said in approval. If Hughes had objections, surely then was the time to raise them.

The BHA, not much loved, is a soft target. Its review document makes it clear that the voice of those in animal welfare organisations and among the general public were paramount when issuing its findings and, naturally, this irritates those, most of all punters, who can legitimately argue that their needs and views are all too often ignored.

That needs to change, of course, but it doesn't diminish the soundness of tackling the public perception that racing can be a cruel sport. Citing the chapter in the report which states that no scientific evidence is available to prove that whipping causes pain to horses is an unsatisfactory escape hatch. If no conclusive proof exists on either side, are we not then morally bound to err on the side of caution and in favour of the animal?

Safety has become such a paramount issue in sport nowadays that it would surely be remiss of racing authorities not to do their utmost to ease fears that horses suffer unduly for the pleasure of humans. Nobody is suggesting that racehorses don't live privileged lives, merely that on the only occasions they are visible to the viewing public, perhaps it would do no harm if their jockeys were a little less vigorous in pursuit of the pot. That is all. Nothing revolutionary.

Yet stiff opposition was easy to anticipate. Two years ago the Australian ruling body tried to introduce similar whip restrictions but backed down in the face of a threatened jockeys' strike. A threat by jockeys to withdraw their services at Windsor and Pontefract tomorrow was averted with the BHA and PJA now due to meet, although the BHA has stated that the new rules will continue to operate.

Common sense must prevail, however. When they sit down with the PJA tomorrow, the BHA should concede its error in introducing new rules without allowing room for tweaks or changes and accept that the five-strike stipulation is unnecessary and, in the case of jump racing where run-ins vary dramatically from track to track, unworkable. It also needs to rethink the severity of the penalties and, if necessary, rescind those imposed last week.

In return, the jockeys should reiterate their support for the principle of the new rules which Hughes, to his credit, did yesterday. Because, for all the widely divergent views articulated in the past week, there is a plausible bottom line here.

We often cite the damage to racing's image when the authorities fail to deal adequately with cases of alleged corruption. Now they are doing something that will surely boost the sport's image and still they can't seem to win.

Sunday Indo Sport

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