Before the Festival started both the Cheltenham executive and the British Horseracing Authority expressed their hope that controversy about the use of the whip would not dominate the headlines. So far they it hasn’t. But I don’t suppose they thought for one moment that their joint handling of fence bypass procedures would be one of the main stories of day two.
Did dolling off the last fence in the Queen Mother Champion chase make any difference to the result? Would Sizing Europe have won if that fence had been taken, and the run in not been extended, allowing Finian’s Rainbow to use his greater flat speed? We can debate those questions, but we’ll never actually know the answer.
The incident came about as a result of the fall of Wishfull Thinking on the first circuit. The horse crashed through the running rails, leaving jockey Richard Johnson on the ground and scattering the photographers gathered there. Although the horse was up immediately, medical staff were still attending to Johnson and a photographer when the runners came round again.
Ground staff first put the diversion boards across the full width of the fence, but on the instructions of Richard Linley, the senior inspector of courses for the BHA, they were repositioned on the inside of the fence. The BHA’s director of race day operations Jamie Stier explained why this was done.
“The priority in any bypassing situation is the safety and welfare of the injured parties and those administering the treatment. The direction markers were grouped together to give the injured and medical team optimum protection at the time.”
Now nobody would disagree with the need to ensure a safe environment for people who have been hurt and those who are giving them assistance, but a very close second in the priorities must surely be to make it absolutely clear to the jockeys still taking part in a race where they should be riding. It isn’t enough to show them don’t go here. And this is what didn’t happen yesterday.
Several factors came into play, the bright sunshine being one of them. Winning jockey Barry Geraghty said he would likely have jumped the fence but for Andrew Lynch, on his inside, spotting the diversion and steering out, taking Geraghty and Finian’s Rainbow with him.
He said, “The sun was in our eyes coming off the final bend and I didn't see they had it dolled off. I didn't realise we had to go around it until Andrew started to move out and took me with him. They didn't seem to have dolled off the whole fence and there was plenty of room to jump half of it. If Andrew had jumped it I'd have gone with him. The whole fence should have been dolled off. The opportunity was there (to jump it) and it shouldn't have been there."
Geraghty refers to a second problem - the fences at Cheltenham are so wide that on this occasion it would have been possible, though not sensible, to have closed off just the inside of the fence. Indeed, there was some speculation on the television commentary that this was what was going to happen.
All courses are required to have three direction markers to be placed on a fence. The arrows on these divert jockeys to the left or right of the hazard. At smaller circuits with narrow fences it's quite obvious that riders will have to go round the fence. But at the wide tracks like Cheltenham and Aintree it's surely common sense to have more marker boards so that there is no room for doubt in the minds of jockeys riding half a ton of horseflesh at 30 mph.
Fortunately, this happened in a race with a small field of only eight runners. Finian's Rainbow and Sizing Europe had drawn some way clear of the other four who are still racing, and so everyone did make their way round the fence. But imagine if this had happened in one of the big handicaps with six or eight jockeys vying for position?
Or suppose that Lynch and/or Geraghty had jumped the final fence yesterday? That could only have led to disqualification for failing to take the correct course. Imagine the headlines then.