By Tony Stafford
Colin Russell, one of the northern press room’s most experienced members, and someone who with his wife Trish trained point-to-pointers for many years, wrote a characteristically intelligent piece in the Racing Post criticising the recent spate of flag-related incidents as far as they impacted upon jockeys.
The infamous one was at Sedgefield where the “official”, possibly someone on day release from B&Q, first showed a yellow (stop boys, race void) flag at the side of a fence that was not to be jumped, but next time round it was the correct chequered (miss this one out, lads) variety.
Racing’s regulation, still languishing in the dark ages, meant that even though the jockeys had not jumped the fence they were supposed to miss, even though the dummy at the side showed yellow, they were wrong not to stop, and bar one of them, who had already departed the action, all the rest got 10-day bans.
The race was completed without any other hitch, but the stewards felt duty-bound not only to impose the penalty, because “it’s in the rules” as I’m sure they said, but also to void the race even though it had been completed without hitch, apart from the hapless official.
A few days later Richard Johnson got himself in a pickle while riding Benbane Head in a four-miler at Exeter. Coming to the seventh fence, the water, he missed it out when he should have jumped it and was promptly given a 12-day ban which rules him out of one of the most lucrative parts of the season for a leading rider.
Interviewed on Racing UK the other day, he was good-naturedly rueing the mistake that means he misses the King George among other major races. Maybe it’s time for Johnson and all the other riders to make a serious protest about the archaic regulations which penalise jockeys more than any other group of sportsmen for comparable minor errors.
Their cause has not been helped over time by the reaction of people such as John McCririck to what he sees as the ultimate crime, easing down a mount in the closing stages and being passed either for a win or even third place.
McCririck stridently argued that even the 28-day bans usually imposed when jockeys are caught late on due to mistaken premature easing on an apparent winner or placed horse are inadequate.
Hang on, 28 days represents 7% of a year’s income, unless the rider has a retainer or regular income in a stable. What kind of blunder in the ordinary workplace would the high earner, say £100k a year, need to make to have £7,000 withdrawn from his pay packet?
I saw an incident in a match last night when Cheik Tiote clearly made a deliberate second movement to enable the flat of his boot to make contact with Alexis Sanchez’s midriff. The referee was probably unsighted, but even if he had imposed the more probable yellow card, Tiote would have been no worse off for a deliberate violent offence.
In football, five yellow cards amount to a single match ban. Football teams often fine their players domestically when they go to extremes in terms of violence, but even in such cases it is rare for them to withhold more than a week’s money.
Yet jockey bans are not just swingeing, they can even be totted up as Richard Hughes among others has found when whip offences come too often in an administration period. Racing is a dangerous game, and if horses are ridden dangerously, penalties are appropriate, but I think it’s time that many of those breaches of the Rules, some relatively trivial, that at the moment involve bans, should switch to financial fines.
If you drive up a motorway at 80 mph you will be unlucky to be caught speeding, yet that’s what you are doing. If you are caught, three points and a small fine are normally the result and you’ve probably got the potential for three more of the same before you get a ban.
I think the old one-, two- or three-day bans for trivial offences could be translated into say £100, £200 and £300 fines, with days out being reserved for the obvious interference, and minor exceeding of the whip guidelines. Dangerous riding and cheating deserve stronger sanctions, but if you start the tariff too high, then the whole issue is unbalanced.
What of the Johnson issue? That four-mile chase, one of Exeter’s spectacles of the season, was ruined as only 13 of the 21 fences had to be jumped. Initially they by-passed the water , which would have been the first fence on the opening circuit, so having gone down the back straight, where all the fences were avoided on each circuit, it was hardly surprising that Johnson, leading on Benbane Head, who had made a mistake at the previous fence, might momentarily think it was to be avoided again. It wasn’t and he collected the coconut! Happily for connections Benbane Head, this time without Johnson, won at Cheltenham on Friday.
Nothing irritates me more in racing at the moment than the taking out of swathes of fences. At Doncaster yesterday, a three-mile novice chase worth almost 20 grand was reduced from 18 to ten fences because the low sun in the straight made it dangerous. Now I’ve never tried to sit on a horse, the RSPCA would have been onto me like a shot, but I wouldn’t mind guessing that up and down the country out in the hunting field gentlemen of my vintage and possibly size too, would be flinging their horses at various obstacles, oblivious to the sun in their eyes.
Danger in racing is inherent. I know that a sunny winter’s afternoon is one of the most pleasurable experiences, so to see a six-furlong run-in between three horses (one had fallen) ruined this race except possibly for the winning connections.
Low sun caused Johnson’s ban and also, that much more unfairly, the Sedgefield jockeys. You’d almost prefer it for racing to say if it’s not possible for safety’s sake to jump all the fences, then void the race.
Alternatively, why not, during the vulnerable parts of the year, between say late November and early February have on hand an experienced rider and a retired chaser to be put over the offending (not their fault) obstacles to assess the danger levels. It would cost a few quid, but if only a few more races are run with the original planned number of fences, it would be worth it.
We had a nice run at Warwick with Ray Tooth’s Adrakhan, second to realistic Triumph Hurdle candidate Chatez, until Peace and Co’s spectacular win for the Nicky Henderson stable at Doncaster in the Summit Junior Hurdle.
Adrakhan improved stones on his debut fifth of six behind the same winner at Bangor, and we’ll be hoping for similar progress from Notnowsam at Catterick after his fifth at Wetherby first time out.
I’m still buzzing from my through-the-night, back the same day excursion to Deauville last Sunday. We were delighted that I could buy back Laughing Water, a winning daughter of Duke of Marmalade for just 15,000 Euro. She’s a beautiful, 16.2hh filly who was restricted to just three runs through injury. She’ll be Ray’s first mare to go to Coolmore as she’ll be covered in the New Year by Derby winner Pour Moi, Exciting days indeed!