Russell misses the point in explaining his treatment of Kings Dolly
The first time I saw a man punch a horse, it was so funny I laughed out loud. That was at least three decades ago. You can still see it online. It's a scene from that classic 1974 film comedy Blazing Saddles. The character is Mongo, a big dumb brute who walks up to the horse and lamps it with a haymaker.
The second time I saw a man punch a horse was last week. It also can be seen online. Nine days ago at a race meeting in Tramore, the leading jockey Davy Russell gave his mount a box to the back of the head. Russell is neither dumb nor brutish, so what was his excuse?
The horse is a seven-year-old mare named Kings Dolly. Russell was in a cluster of jockeys leading their horses up to a "show" hurdle before the race. Kings Dolly canters up a little too keenly and then brakes at the last second. The sudden stop forces her front legs off the ground momentarily; they catch on the toe board as she tries to find her feet. None of this happens at speed; it is non-dramatic and unremarkable. Russell is lifted a few inches out of his saddle for a second. Just as quickly the horse is calm and static. He sits back down again. Then he draws back his right arm and lands a punch behind the horse's right ear. Then he nonchalantly turns her around to head back up the track. The whole incident lasts about seven seconds.
It is going to last a lot longer for Russell because it was captured by a TV camera. Within hours it was spreading like wildfire on social media. The jockey had been caught bang to rights in the court of public opinion.
Experts within the racing game say the mare is unlikely to have been physically damaged by the blow. And it should be remembered that there were no repeated blows. It was one single punch to the skull area that could have damaged his hand more than the horse's head.
But the game itself has once again been harmed because it looks like a desperately ignorant act: a closed fist, an abuse of power, a human bullying an animal.
It seems that with every passing generation, rural culture is becoming increasingly marginalised by urban and suburban society. Anyone who wishes to see country life remain robust and vibrant will appreciate the important role played by horse racing in its economy and general well-being.
But people who think their food comes from supermarkets won't generally have much interest in rural pursuits. It is a vast cohort of the population and it is a stranger to racing. If they happen to catch it on television at all, it will be in brief highlights on the sports bulletins at the end of news programmes. And these highlights will usually consist of a bunch of small people forcing horses to run at high speeds, frequently over dangerous fences, and sometimes being hit repeatedly with a stick to go even faster. The number of casual observers who deem this to be acceptable practice is dwindling. The Russell episode will only alienate more of them.
The industry's senior figures are evidently well aware of its image issues; they know which way the wind is blowing. And the fact that one of its star personalities, a former champion jockey, saw fit to treat a horse in this manner can only have unnerved its guardians.
But inevitably some of its insiders also lapsed into siege mentality when the pictures from Tramore went viral. One of Russell's colleagues, Robbie Power, engaged in a bit of jockeysplaining - which is to say, he blamed the horse. "It looked as if the horse was paying no attention to Davy's instructions to slow down going into the hurdle," offered Power. "There was no malicious intent there and people need to realise that."
Bold horse, naughty horse, uppity horse, refusing to submit to the "instructions" of her master. Sure it's no wonder Russell had to put manners on her with a box behind the ear. "Find a horseman," tweeted a racing manager named David Redvers, "who claims he has never hit or kicked a horse and you will find a liar."
Russell's behaviour, said Bruce Millington, was showing the sport's "ugly face to the outside world." Millington is editor of the Racing Post. His comment piece in Thursday's edition was a clear-headed rejection of the industry's denial and defensive reaction.
"I am left with a feeling of acute disappointment," he wrote, "that there are so many people keen to trivialise the incident, which shocked me when I first saw it and has never left anything other than an unpleasant taste in my mouth in subsequent viewings."
As for Russell himself, he hadn't even the cop-on to apologise, if only for the sake of damage limitation. "The situation with Kings Dolly was an ordinary enough situation," said the Youghal man in his newspaper column on Monday, "and I didn't do anything out of the ordinary." He reassured his readers that he rides "every horse to win, no matter what, and would never do anything to hamper its chances."
Talk about missing the point. Pretty much everyone else thought it was about animal welfare, not about winning or losing a handicap hurdle in Tramore. Even Mongo would have understood that.
Sunday Indo Sport