Saturday 17 March 2018

Racing is whipping itself into a frenzy

The sport has been dragged into an unholy mess, says Ian McClean

Ian McClean

It has been a bad week at the office for British horse racing. The start of a corruption investigation on Thursday involving five jockeys was almost completely obscured by the furore over the bundled implementation of the new whip rules. Stories are rippling beyond the racing pages, ranging from ESPN to the Financial Times and even the Washington Post.

If leadership is ultimately about being accountable for results then the British Horseracing Authority must be held accountable for the discredit it has brought upon the sport in the last fortnight.

At a time when, by almost every available metric, the sport is plunging into decline, the thing it most needs is direction, and decisions that will stem the decay -- not fuel it. Racing has been dragged into disrepute and it has been done directly by the decision of the BHA to implement the new whip regulations, with draconian penalties and no trial period, on October 10, just five days before the richest meeting ever staged in Britain.

That single ill-judged decision has meant that painstaking research that lasted 10 months disintegrated in just 10 days. We are left with a situation where we have already had a single-man strike; there is the lingering threat of a more widespread jockey walkout; unrest tantamount to civil war has broken out amongst jockeys over the rules; and still the horse welfare groups are disappointed it hasn't gone far enough.

Sure, no matter when the new rules were introduced it would have provoked controversy, but the insensitive timing of the introduction meant that instead of showcasing the best of what the sport can offer, the headlines were dominated by the injustice of the financial penalty meted out to a Frenchman and the principled stance taken by Richard Hughes.

This occurred in spite of the research by World Horse Welfare that in the first week of the new whip rules less than one per cent of rides were actually in breach of the guidelines.

To be fair to the BHA, and recognising the nuclear situation was unsustainable, it responded with a modified set of rules on Friday. It scrapped its insistence that the number of hits inside the final furlong of a race or after the final jump must be no more than five.

Amendments to fines mean jockeys will no longer lose their riding fee if suspended for breaches of the whip rules. Jockeys will lose a percentage of prize money if their suspensions are for seven days or more, rather than three, as originally announced. The immediate upshot of the changes, which are being applied retrospectively, is that some jockeys suspended in the first week of the new rules have had their bans rescinded (Hughes) and prize money reinstated (Christophe Soumillon).

Though suggesting that the rule will continue to be monitored, the BHA statement suggested it had gone far enough when it added, pointedly: "It must be the role of the regulator, not the sport's participants, to set and enforce the rules."

Another key ingredient of leadership is stakeholder management. The rule amendment has placated some jockeys to a point of reluctant acceptance, but others, including Jamie Spencer, remain militant. There is a schism in the weigh-room.

Jockeys are only one stakeholder. Animal welfare groups are tugging the rope in the opposite direction. The RSPCA are currently not anti-whip and applauded the new rules upon their introduction but David Muir, their racing adviser, said he was disappointed. "The point was so simple, if jockeys stayed within the rules they had no problems whatsoever, didn't lose their riding fee or their prize money," he said. "Now it's nine hits before you lose any prize-money and, perception-wise, it takes us straight back to this year's Grand National. They've watered it down to such a degree it doesn't show a clear will to stop the problem once and for all. It took 10 months to put together, a week to take apart. The BHA have told me there will be a culture change among jockeys. Let's see what happens. If there isn't, it will be us banging on their door next time."

At this junction, there are further clarifications still to be made. In the aforementioned Grand National Jason Maguire hit the winner Ballabriggs 17 times and expedited the revision of penalties for whip infringements.

Part of their research involved commissioning an extensive public opinion survey, and the BHA concluded: "A large proportion of the population -- particularly women and those with no interest in racing -- instinctively disagree with the use of the whip and think current penalties are too lenient." This insight formed the underlying principle of the review. Yet, contrastingly, bookings for Aintree 2012 are up 27 per cent from last year.

Furthermore, we haven't yet witnessed the impact of the rules on the jump jockeys as we sit on the cusp of a new NH season. AP McCoy, who was broadly supportive of the modifications on Friday, did sound one note of discomfort, saying: "I am unhappy that a three-mile chase is being treated the same as a five-furlong sprint".

What is a bigger certainty than Frankel is that this saga still has a long way to run. And as the BHA picks over the rubble of its reputation, it might well comfort itself that a proper compromise means that nobody is entirely happy.

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