The Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton, the main race of a relatively low-key Saturday, provided the latest PR disaster for the BHA, as Swincombe Flame battled back on the run in to win by a nose from Featherbed Lane. Whilst punters were delighted to be paid out on the 9/2 favourite (backed in from 9/1 in the morning) jockey Will Kennedy was left considerably out of pocket.
Kennedy was adjudged to have used his whip 10 times in the finish, two strokes above the limit, and also to have struck his mount once in the wrong place behind the saddle. As a result he was landed with a seven-day ban and forfeited his share of the £25,000 prize money. The jockey recognised he had broken the rules and immediately after the race said, "I'm not really one for hitting them but I missed the last and what do I tell the owners? I either hit two more times win by a nostril or I don't and I get beaten. Who can say I would have won without those two hits? It's disappointing."
Kennedy's ban is mild in comparison with two others handed out last week. Amateur rider Robert Cooper received a marathon 52 day suspension, the longest to be imposed since the changes were introduced, for hitting his mount 23 times during a race, and flat jockey Robert Winston was given 22 days on the sidelines under the totting up procedure for his ride on the Mark Tompkins trained Zenarinda at Southwell.
Winston said he would appeal his ban, although he did not expect to succeed. Spelling out the impact of his second ban within 12 months, Winston said, "I've got a young family, I've got a mortgage, and I've got a whole year to wipe this slate clean. I could get banned for three months next time. I feel I'm the one being abused here – mentally. I'm just totally upset by the whole thing."
In one sense the timing of these latest bans couldn't be better, as on Friday this week the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA) will meet the BHA to discuss the continuing problems. The BHA's new Chief Executive, Paul Bittar, takes up his post in two days time, and if he is in any doubt about the depth of feeling the new whip rules have caused, he certainly won't be after this early discussion.
Kevin Darley, outgoing President of the PJA, said yesterday, "It is still very frustrating. When the rules were amended in November, we felt that because the stewards have got the power to use a bit of discretion that might alleviate the problem, but obviously it hasn't. The guys that are riding winners at high-profile meetings are sportsmen at the top of their game and they're only doing what they feel is expected of them to stay as competitive as they can. I think we’re a long way off with these rules, they're still not working as we at the PJA would like."
Looking further ahead Darley raised the worry that as the rules and suspensions continued to feature as significant news stories themselves, there was a risk of them overshadowing coverage of the horses and the racing at the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National meeting. "We've got Cheltenham coming and all these great horses we have at the moment and when they go and win their races they are what the headlines should be about. It's always the big days that make the headlines, and make the difference not only to the jockey, but to the horse, the trainer and the owner. The rules are compromising competitiveness, which is detrimental to the sport."
Reflecting on those three recent bans Darley said, "Whether you think that the penalty that Mr Cooper got is proportional or not, that kind of abuse of the whip is what I think the rules are there to stop. But at the top end, the likes of Will Kennedy and Timmy Murphy and one or two others have given horses fantastic rides and because they’re one or two over the limit they’re getting penalised."