Ben Curtis will be able to ride from Saturday after being given a 28-day ban, with 14 days suspended, for breaching Covid-19 protocols at Newmarket last month.
The rider was escorted from the track and stood down immediately for two weeks after he entered the owners’ zone on August 28, in contravention of the strict measures employed by the British Horseracing Authority to allow racing to continue.
Curtis last week had an application to lift that initial suspension turned down, but a full hearing of the independent disciplinary panel took place on Friday.
Curtis admitted he had used the incorrect owners’ entrance on arriving at the track, as well as contravening the Covid-19 protocols by crossing into the owners’ zone, where he had been filming a promotional video with two owners. He denied he had done so intentionally and any suggestion he had brought racing into disrepute.
In his evidence, Curtis said “he made a mistake on the day” that led to him entering the wrong area, with the rider adding he was “burnt out, exhausted and tired” after a busy period following the resumption of racing in June.
He stated his actions were not deliberate and put the cost of his enforced two-week absence at between “£10,000 and £12,000”.
After hearing evidence from Gemma Steve, Jockey Club Racecourse’s head of operations for the east region, who was manning the owners’ entrance on August 28, and considering three other witness statements, the disciplinary panel found Curtis had breached Covid-19 regulations as well as rule (J)19, in that he had acted “in a manner prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct and good reputation of horseracing”.
Trainers William Haggas and Hugo Palmer had both written letters of support for Curtis, along with Dale Gibson, the Professional Jockeys Association’s executive director, and that was taken into account by chairman Philip Curl and his panel of Chloe Fairley and Steve Winfield.
In handing down the 28-day ban, with 14 days suspended for six months and the other two weeks backdated to August 28, Curl said: “We’ve tried to balance the seriousness of breaches of these Covid regulations with the mitigation in your case, which includes your character, your excellent record, the facts of this case, the loss you have already suffered from not riding and the financial consequences of that.”
However, Curl did issue a note of caution to all riders going forward that any future breaches are not certain to result in similar verdicts.
He said: “We wish to make it clear – perhaps you could spread the word in the weighing room – jockeys should not assume in the future that in Covid cases part of the penalty would be suspended.
“In the particular circumstances of this case, and your circumstances, we feel we can suspend part of it, but the weighing room is not to assume that is always going to be the case.”
The suspension entry point suggested under BHA rules for breaching Covid-19 protocols is three months and following the hearing, PJA chief executive Paul Struthers thanked the panel for reaching what he described as a “sensible” verdict.
He said: “We would like to thank the disciplinary panel for a fair hearing and for reaching an entirely sensible and rational conclusion on the appropriate sanction, bearing in mind Ben has already served a costly two-week suspension as required under racing’s Covid-19 protocols.
“We note that we have never had cause to complain about any decision, whether or not we agree with it, since the advent of the current judicial panel under the chairmanship of Brian Barker CBE QC.
“However, it is very disappointing that, through those instructed by its in-house compliance team, the BHA was seeking a three-month suspension, a punishment which would have had a catastrophic and immediate impact on Ben’s career and well-being.
“No doubt the BHA will try to justify this, but given the facts of the case and when compared to action taken by other sports, it is a stance that is impossible to fathom and was one with which the panel clearly didn’t agree.
“Unfortunately, the actions of the BHA’s compliance team were once again cause for concern and frustration. These actions damage the otherwise excellent relationship that the PJA and its members have with the BHA.
“Having sought to persuade a panel to take someone’s livelihood away for a quarter of a year for what amounts to a professional misjudgement, it is crucial for the BHA to hold others it regulates and itself to the same standards it expects of licensed jockeys and trainers.
“Ben is grateful to the support he has received from racing professionals and once again apologises unreservedly for his mistake.”