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PJA pledges to protect interests of all members

The Professional Jockeys Association has promised to “protect and support the health and well-being of all its members” amid reports of some unrest in the weighing room.

King George VI Chase winner Bryony Frost alluded to difficulties she was facing following her greatest success in the saddle – and while she has not commented on the specifics, it is believed to stem from an incident at Southwell in September, according to a report in The Times.

A complaint has since been lodged by Frost with the British Horseracing Authority.

Speaking to the media the day after her victory aboard Frodon at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, Frost said: “The more success you have, the more people will frown at you as well as smile with you, so you have to accept it all.

“I’m very lucky I’ve got a supportive team and family around me, and I’m starting to build that bubble in tight.

“I will never change myself because of what some opinions are, as that is not what you are supposed to do.

“As you grow up, you have to remain yourself, and that’s the important thing.”

Paul Struthers, PJA chief executive, said in a statement: “The overwhelming priority of the PJA is to protect and support the health and well-being of all its members, whether on a one-to-one basis, through collective representation or working with other stakeholders in the sport.

“Whilst it would not be appropriate to comment on specific individuals or issues at this time, supporting our members from a pastoral perspective and ensuring appropriate behaviours are responsibilities we take very seriously.”

When contacted, a spokesperson for the British Horseracing Authority said: “The BHA does not comment on ongoing investigations or speculation concerning potential investigations.”

BHA states ‘racing continues’ following shutdown rumours

The British Horseracing Authority has been given no indication from Government that a stoppage of elite sport in Britain is imminent, the PA news agency understands.

Rumours on social media on Sunday evening suggested a shutdown of sport, including racing and football, was under consideration in a bid to reduce the rising rate of coronavirus.

However, it understood that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has contacted the ruling body of racing to inform that no such discussions have taken place, and no formal meetings were planned for Monday.

On Monday morning, the BHA posted on Twitter: “British racing continues behind closed doors this week”, followed by a list of fixtures scheduled to take place on Monday and Tuesday.

The BHA also later tweeted a reminder to all participants to follow the Covid-19 protocols in place – both on course and in yards.

Racing to continue without crowds in Tier 4

Fixtures will continue behind closed doors in all areas affected by the Government’s new Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions, the British Horseracing Authority has confirmed.

A BHA statement was published on Saturday night following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that much of south-east England, already subject to Tier 3 arrangements, will move into a stricter Tier 4 for two weeks from Sunday.

That effectively means a return to the lockdown measures which prevailed nationally last month, in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the pandemic during Britain’s latest wave of the virus.

Several major meetings – including Kempton’s Ladbrokes Christmas Festival, headlined by the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day – are set to take place in the areas affected, and were therefore already scheduled to do so without crowds following their previous move into Tier 3 earlier this week.

Saturday’s statement from racing’s national governing body read: “A Government official has confirmed to the BHA tonight that Tier 4 is equivalent to the restrictions that applied to elite sports in the second national lockdown in November.

“Racing will continue behind closed doors in Tier 4 in England – with no spectators and owners subjected to the same restrictions as in November, which limit attendance to a maximum of 45 on the course at any point.

“Owners attending must comply with the BHA’s protocols as well as national guidance, and satisfy themselves that their travel to, and attendance at, race meetings is legitimately linked to their business involvement in British racing.

“Each individual racecourse will provide information specific to their events – which owners are asked to check before attending.”

The BHA continues to stress the importance of awareness for all of up-to-date guidelines and policy, adding in the statement:  “All those attending racing behind closed doors, including participants, are asked to note the Government’s latest statements about the risks of virus transmission and ensure they continue to follow racing’s protocols.

“The BHA and racecourses will continue to liaise with Government, Public Health England and local Safety Advisory Groups and keep the situation under review. We will share any further relevant details as and when we have them.”

BHA welcomes Government funding package for coronavirus-affected sports

British Horseracing Authority chief executive Nick Rust has welcomed the Government’s announcement that up to £40 million will be made available to racecourses to help them weather the continuing hardship of behind-closed-doors racing.

Plans for a combined £300m cash injection for 11 sports severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic were unveiled by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with racing second to only rugby union in terms of the support it will receive.

Racing has been staged without spectators since it resumed on June 1, barring two crowd pilot events at Doncaster and Warwick in September, with racecourses warning of dire consequences if the sport continues to operate without racegoers.

Working with racecourses and horsemen, the BHA put in a detailed submission to Government at the beginning of October, which included an updated assessment of the economic impact of the absence of spectators for a further six months until the end of March.

Losses were estimated at a further £70m and the Government has recognised that plea in its Sport Winter Survival Package, providing the support, which will largely be in the form of loans, to help racecourses.

Rust said: “The support for racing recognises the sport’s position as the second biggest spectator sport in the UK and the financial peril faced by the tens of thousands who depend upon racing for their livelihoods.

BHA chief executive Nick Rust
BHA chief executive Nick Rust (Victoria Jones/PA)

“We are grateful to DCMS and its ministers and officials who have come together with their colleagues at the Treasury to secure this assistance for horseracing. We also thank the many MPs who have supported the need to help the racing businesses in their constituencies.

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“Once again, this demonstrates that when racing speaks to government with one voice, we are so much more effective.

“I would also like to thank the members of the BHA team who put our submission together and presented it to government and officials. They work tirelessly to protect the interests of racing.

“Whilst advancing the case for financial support, they have also helped to ensure the sport continues behind closed doors, with owners present, and supported the efforts to get spectators back. I am very proud of all they are achieving.”

However, a BHA statement also underlined its commitment to reviewing the current Levy system, whilst also highlighting how the closure of betting shops will also impact on racing’s finances.

It added: “The most significant pressure – the absence of spectators – remains, whilst the closure of betting shops will further impact the amount raised by the Levy.

“We continue to press government to address structural challenges with the funding of horseracing, which would be best addressed by an immediate review of the Levy and its contribution to the international competitiveness of British racing.”

The BHA, which told MPs the “most important way government could help racing was to secure the return of spectators at the earliest opportunity”, is now seeking to clarify the criteria of issuing loans as well as further information as to how any funding will be made available to Scottish and Welsh racecourses.

Empty stands at Cheltenham's October meeting
Empty stands at Cheltenham’s October meeting (David Davies/PA)

Charlie Liverton, chief executive of the Racehorse Owners Association and speaking on behalf of The Horsemen’s Group, also made it clear Levy reform is a key issue.

He said: “As we continue without spectators on courses, this financial support from Government is vital and welcome. There are clear challenges for our sport with the flow of funds to participants severely restricted, impacting the grassroots every day.

“I hope that this additional support for racecourses will work for everyone in the sport and we see the funding trickle down to the committed participants that keep racing going. There is more to do to address structural funding issues and we continue to support calls for Levy reform.”

The Government had hoped to allow spectators to return to venues on a socially-distanced basis from October 1, but it delayed those plans after a rise in coronavirus infections nationwide.

A pilot scheme took place at Doncaster in September before plans to return crowds were halted
A pilot scheme took place at Doncaster in September before plans to return crowds were halted (David Davies/PA)

The final amount received by each sport or organisation may ultimately differ from the amounts which have been set out initially when final decisions are made by an independent decision-making board, and supported by Sport England.

David Armstrong, chief executive of the Racecourse Association, added: “On behalf of our members, we welcome the announcement of financial support for racing and look forward to working with Government and Sport England on how this funding will be allocated.

“Racecourses face an extremely challenging environment until spectators can return in full and we continue to work closely with Government and other major sports to expedite this as quickly as possible.”

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has said there is “definitely a chance” of spectators being back in sporting venues ahead of Christmas.

Speaking on talkSPORT on Thursday, Dowden said: “There is definitely a chance of it. We are in close discussions with the centre of Government about what we could do as we go back into the tiering system.

“There’s a possibility in the lowest-risk areas to open the door ajar a little bit, start to prove in the lowest-risk areas that we could make this work then I’d love for us to be able to do that.”

Racing to benefit from Government funding package for coronavirus-affected sports

Up to £40 million of loans will be made available to British racing as part of the Government’s support package for sport in the continued absence of spectators.

The Government will provide a combined £300million cash injection to 11 sports hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has announced, with racing second to only rugby union in terms of the support it will receive.

Racing has been held behind closed doors since it resumed on June 1, barring two crowd pilot events at Doncaster and Warwick in September, with racecourses warning of dire consequences if the sport continues to operate without spectators.

The Government has recognised that plea in its Sport Winter Survival Package, providing the cash to help support racecourses – a move welcomed by the British Horseracing Authority.

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It tweeted: “The BHA welcomes the announcement by @DCMS that up to £40m of loans will be made available for British racing. This recognises racing’s position as the UK’s second biggest spectator sport, the many livelihoods it supports and the financial peril faced across our industry.

“Working with racecourses and horsemen, the BHA put in a detailed submission to Government in October. This included an assessment of the economic impact of the absence of spectators for a further six months until the end of March.”

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston said: “Over the past few weeks we have worked tirelessly with sport governing bodies and clubs across the country to fully
assess what support is needed, as a result of the decision to postpone the return of fans.

“We know the vast majority of sports – many of which operate on tight financial margins – have been making serious cost reductions, such as locking down grounds, taking up the furlough scheme for many staff and halting excess payments.

“Whilst the Government’s overall economic package has provided a significant buffer, it is absolutely right that we now intervene to protect entire sports, and the communities they support, as we navigate this pandemic.”

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden added: “Sports clubs are the beating hearts of their communities and this £300m boost will help them survive this difficult winter period.

“We promised to stand by sports when we had to postpone fans returning. We are doing just that by delivering another #300m on top of existing business support schemes.

“Britain is a sports powerhouse and this Government will do everything we can to help our precious sports and clubs make it through Covid.”

The Government had hoped to allow spectators to return to venues on a socially-distanced basis from October 1, but it delayed those plans after a rise in coronavirus infections nationwide.

The final amount received by each sport or organisation may ultimately differ from the amounts which have been set out initially when final decisions are made by an independent decision-making board, and supported by Sport England.

Monday discussions set to decide owner attendance in lockdown

Meetings will take place on Monday to determine whether owners can still attend British racecourses when the new national lockdown kicks in.

Nick Rust, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, is relieved that racing can continue through the tighter restrictions imposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – which are set to last for four weeks from Thursday – but the participation of owners is once more up in the air.

Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck On Sunday, Rust said: “The Government has shown plenty of faith in us, and we can show what an important role racing plays in national life over the next month.

“There will be meetings tomorrow to work everything through, because there are arrangements which are different in Scotland and Wales – but fundamentally, on first assessment last night, the only query is going to be participation of owners.

“Obviously we’d love to keep them coming – but there have been some tough restrictions re-imposed on hospitality, so there are no guarantees on that. We will fight hard on it, but the main thing is that we comply and we keep racing going for the next month.

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“I doubt there will need to be substantial changes – if any – to the requirements placed on participants during this period. We’d already tightened a few things up, including the wearing of face coverings, last week.

“We made the case originally to bring back owners, that they were an essential part of the activity, but the sentiment is very much around essential work – we’re not making a decision on that until we’ve had further discussions.”

Another key area for discussion for Rust and the BHA is when the return of paying spectators will be permitted, with racing’s finances taking a huge hit the longer they are absent from racecourses.

“We have to keep going with trying to bring crowds back,” said Rust.

“It won’t be a public campaign – that is not the way to deal with it, given the announcement which has just been made, but we have not stopped behind the scenes, working with other sports as well, trying to pave the way for spectators.

“It’s a massive issue facing the sports sector – and racing in particular – if we aren’t able to bring spectators back.

“We’re not expecting to have pilots back before Christmas now, but we have to pave the way to have pilots in January and February looking to bring crowds back from spring onward, if conditions allow generally.

“The Government trusted us with pilots – we were the first major sport really to run events and we still had between 200-400 people in those early days of racing as well, so we’ve shown that we can do it and we want to use the evidence to help Government with the road map.”

Another blow to the racing industry is the closure of betting shops, which is expected have a knock-on detrimental effect on prize moeny.

Rust added: “With betting shops closed for a month, that will have an impact on media rights income and of course the Levy, which could cost around £2,500,000 and possibly more – I don’t know the figure for media rights.

“We know that 50 per cent of racecourse income is from spectators – and we know that is not going to be there – and there will be a reduction in activity from betting-related income.

“Through Levy Board support, we have enough to run the fixture list at minimum prize-money levels for about 75 per cent of the races, certainly up until Christmas, and we’re looking to confirm for the first three or four months of next year on the same basis.

“The return of spectators from spring next year is absolutely vital.”

Racing given green light to continue despite lockdown

Racing will be allowed to continue behind closed doors despite a new national lockdown that comes into force next week, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has confirmed.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new measures to combat a rise in Covid-19 cases at a press conference on Saturday evening, with pubs, bars, restaurants and non-essential retail across the nation to close from Thursday.

Dowden announced elite sport – which includes racing – will be allowed to continue during the lockdown, which will run until December 2.

He tweeted: “As the Prime Minister has just confirmed, we will be taking additional restrictions from Thursday. We understand the anxiety & impact these will have, and will ensure they last not a day longer than necessary.

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“The changes mean people should WFH (work from home) where possible. But where this is not possible, travel to a place of work will be permitted – e.g. this includes (but not exhaustive) elite sport played behind closed doors, film & tv production, telecoms workers.

“We understand people will have a lot of questions and @DCMS officials & ministers will be working through these and detailed implications with sectors over the coming days.”

Racing was halted for nearly three months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, resuming on June 1 with strict measures in place to help reduce the spread of the virus and only essential staff initially allowed on course.

Owners were allowed to return to the track in a limited way on July 4, with those restrictions steadily eased in the following weeks, and two successful trials for the return of spectators were held at Doncaster and Warwick in September before the Government halted the pilot scheme as Covid cases began to rise.

The British Horseracing Authority welcomed the news that racing will be allowed to continue, but also underlined the need for financial assistance and funding reform with no crowds on course and betting shops, which are non-essential retail, forced to close their doors again.

A statement read: “The horseracing industry has worked hard to maintain the safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and work. We have done all we can to play our part and will continue to do so under the new restrictions.

“The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Oliver Dowden has said tonight that elite sport played behind closed doors will be able to continue in this period. Horseracing is included in that category, which is crucial for our industry.

“The Government’s decision, we believe, recognises the professionalism shown by our people and the vital need to protect their jobs. This is welcome news for the tens of thousands whose livelihoods depend upon our industry.

“Now, more than ever, we recognise the need to act responsibly and keep racing safely. In the difficult weeks ahead, our sport will do its best to lift the nation’s spirits.

“We have set out to Government in recent weeks the perilous future we face with no spectators permitted at present and betting shops closing. Today’s decision does not alter the fact that that racing needs urgent financial aid and funding reform to protect jobs and the future of our world-class industry.”

BHA chief Rust confident racing can continue

British Horseracing Authority chief executive Nick Rust “firmly believes” racing can continue behind closed doors in the event of another lockdown in England.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will host a press conference with his chief medical and scientific advisers on Saturday afternoon, amid speculation he will impose a national lockdown in England next week.

Racing resumed on June 1 after a near three-month break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with strict measures in place to help reduce the spread of the virus and only essential staff initially allowed on course.

Owners were allowed to return to the track in a limited way on July 4, with those restrictions steadily eased in the following weeks, and two successful trials for the return of spectators were held at Doncaster and Warwick in September.

However, the Government put a hold on those trials as Covid cases began to increase and with its behind-closed-doors policy in place, the BHA thinks racing can continue even if restrictions are tightened.

Rust said: “Racing is categorised as an elite sport and has in place strict Government-agreed protocols, which have been brilliantly observed by our participants and attendees. We have been monitoring racing since June and have seen no evidence of transmission of the virus at any of our near 500 events.

“Racing has continued behind closed doors in Wales and other nations which have enacted lockdowns and we firmly believe it can continue behind closed doors here.”

Rust warns 2021 crowd absence may present ‘strong risk’ of losing racecourses

British Horseracing Authority chief executive Nick Rust has restated his fear that there is a “strong risk” of racecourses being closed down if crowds are unable to return in 2021.

Plans for spectators to attend sports venues from October 1 were placed on hold by Government last month, because of rising coronavirus infections.

Speaking in an interview on Sky News on Monday morning, Rust praised those who have enabled racing to “keep the show on the road” since the resumption of fixtures at the start of June – and added racing will continue to work with other sports to try to get crowds back as soon as possible.

“With the exception of two pilot days, we haven’t had any spectators at racecourses, and more than 50 per cent of the sport’s revenue comes from spectators, so it’s hitting us pretty hard,” said Rust.

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“We’ve managed to run more than 450 events behind closed doors since June 1, with no evidence of transmission of Covid. The sport has done superbly well, and the 17,000 people who work in it directly have followed a strict set of guidelines to help ensure we can keep the show on the road.

“The decision by Government, which we understand, to cease having crowds for the moment – and ceasing the pilots that we had in place back in August and September – is giving a bleak look for our sport over the next six months.

“If we don’t have a path back for spectators, racecourses who are clinging on through cost-saving measures and using Government help, are going to really struggle – and that is going to have a knock-on effect to our sport.

“We know of no racecourses that are going to close in the immediate future – but if we don’t have spectators in any meaningful way in 2021, we’re at strong risk of losing racecourses.”

The BHA board and its member bodies agreed earlier this month to take a united stance, after developing a single set of proposals for reforming the Levy.

A steering group is tasked with assessing all the options for Levy reform in light of the impact of Covid-19 and the expected economic downturn.

Rust added: “Other countries have had advantageous policy on the funding from betting for a number of years. Our off-course betting was legalised in 1961 and was set up in a way that was less favourable than in Hong Kong or indeed our near neighbours in France and Ireland.

“We have huge investment from international investors in the heritage and the wonder of British racing. I’m not expecting to have the very best prize-money here, because we’ve never offered the very best prize-money, but when prize-money is impacted and the pennies are short in these organisations, of course they’re going to look at where they spend their money – and we’re seeing evidence of some horses moving to be trained in France and Ireland, which is a worry.

“Government has offered us help, and we have a three-step plan. One is working to bring spectators back to the racecourse; secondly we need some direct support (from Government) to help us bridge the gap for when spectators can return, and finally we’d benefit from a horseracing betting Levy review to make sure that it keeps up with the situation.

“Betting shops are unfortunately being closed in Tier Three areas, so our income is reducing there, and more people are switching to digital betting, which ultimately means that we receive less through each bet placed.

“We need to adjust the model, so we’re looking for a review to make sure that it’s up to date for today’s times.”

Racing protocols remain unchanged following latest Government guidelines

New coronavirus guidelines issued by the Government on Monday will not necessitate any changes to the British Horseracing Authority’s current protocols for behind-closed-doors racing.

A new three-tier system for England has been unveiled as the Government tries to tackle the rising number of Covid-19 cases, with differing levels of restrictions imposed depending on whether an area is judged to be on medium, high or very high alert.

The BHA’s chief medical adviser Dr Jerry Hill has considered that new guidance and discussed it with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with no need for any immediate revision to current practices – although he reminded all in the sport of their responsibility to follow the protocols in place.

He said: “Following close consideration of the detail behind the new Government guidelines, and discussion with DCMS, we can confirm that the new protocols do not affect the existing behind-closed-doors guidelines for British racing.

“We do, however, urge everyone involved in British racing who is taking part in any racing-related activities to check the restrictions in their local area and follow the relevant Government advice.

“It also goes without saying it remains critical that all of our industry participants follow Government’s and British racing’s coronavirus protocols at all times, whether at work or at home, to ensure that racing can continue behind closed doors.

“The BHA, in liaison with other stakeholders, have in place an on-going process of reviewing our guidelines to ensure they stay up to date with a rapidly changing situation and we anticipate the next version to be published soon.

“Participants should check www.britishhorseracing.com and the Racing Admin website regularly to ensure they are following the latest advice.”

Warwick gets go-ahead for reduced capacity crowd trial

Warwick’s pilot meeting on Monday has been given the green light to take place, but with a crowd reduced from a proposed 800 people to 474 spectators.

As a result, no tickets will go on sale to the general public, with the spaces filled by annual members, hospitality and owners.

When last week’s pilot scheme at Doncaster was halted by the local authority after just one day, Warwick reduced their capacity from 1,000 to 800, but following meetings with Public Health England, the figure has been further reduced.

Warwick is owned by the Jockey Club, like Newmarket, with that track still planning to stage the Cambridgeshire meeting (September 24-26) in front of 1,000 racegoers each day.

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A statement on Warwick’s website read: “Following discussions with local authorities and representatives, Warwick Racecourse will welcome up to 474 spectators at its Monday, September 21 racing fixture as part of a limited capacity trial, with stringent health and safety measures in place for its first meeting since March.

“The restricted capacity will be filled by 150 annual members, 124 hospitality bookers and up to 200 racehorse owners, in addition to participants and raceday staff.

“Tickets will not go on general sale given the limits involved.”

With a handful of football matches this weekend also hosting small crowds, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden issued an update on the pilot schemes.

He tweeted: “Return of fans to sport update. Just held a collaborative and constructive meeting with major sports on the October 1 review. There is mutual understanding of the need to get fans back in, while all acknowledging the very significant headwinds we face with the virus.

“The Government is conducting this review rapidly and will complete this work on the return of fans as soon as possible. This follows a meeting I held with the business events sector earlier this week as part of the review.”

The British Horseracing Authority along with a number of other sporting bodies, including the Premier League, EFL and England and Wales Cricket Board, met with Dowden on Wednesday and issued a joint statement after their discussions.

The statement said: “We conveyed to the Secretary of State the very serious financial situation now facing our sports, clubs and venues and that we believe we can stage events safely.

“It is clear that if fans cannot return soon that there will be very serious economic implications across our sporting sector.

“Our sports have already demonstrated through staging fixtures behind closed doors, in test events and through the return of recreational sport that we can deliver the very highest standards in safety and best practice.

“We will continue to engage with the Government in the days ahead and provide any further evidence required.”

Ben Curtis handed 28-day ban following Covid-19 breach

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”.

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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.”

The Best Exploiter of ‘The System’?

Jim Best wins the races..?

Jim Best wins the races..?

I wrote the below piece on 4th September 2014. But, in light of yesterday's verdict in the Jim Best case, it is both topical and prudent to revisit it, and consider - as well as the man himself - the wider implications, and what we as punters need to do to stay on the right side of such plots.

***

It was a contentious day at the office for British racing yesterday, as a plot unfolded in dramatic circumstances.

The race in question, a handicap hurdle at Southwell, looked a typically low grade Wednesday heat, the ten declared runners all being rated 100 or lower. Notably, trainer Jim Best was responsible for two of the ten. Tony McCoy was due to ride Into The Wind, the second favourite, and Rhys Flint would pilot apparent outsider, Saint Helena.

But, between declaration time on Tuesday and off time on Wednesday, a suspicious sequence of events transpired...

First, the more fancied of the two Best runners was withdrawn on account of the ground. Next, with McCoy now apparently without a ride in the race, Flint was 'jocked off' Saint Helena and the champion assumed the steering duties. All the while, market support for Saint Helena was strong, from before the notification of Into The Wind's absence right up until off time.

Saint Helena, a 9/1 shot in the morning, was eventually sent off the 11/10 favourite. As it transpired, she won, just, requiring all of McCoy's strength and race-riding nous to get the job done.

If you fail to see anything untoward in the above, that's probably because you're not party to Saint Helena's form history. A six year old mare, Saint Helena was good enough to win three times on the flat, off ratings as high as 79, and all on good to firm ground.

In her seven prior hurdle starts, she had run no closer to a winner than when a 69.75 length eleventh of twelve in her last race. That was a novice hurdle, and it was the latest bid from the trainer to get this horse handicapped.

**

The racing game in Britain and Ireland is predicated upon a few good horses running in stakes and conditions races, with the vast majority of the remainder running in weight for ability races once they've qualified.

The qualification criteria to receive an initial handicap rating are fairly straightforward, on the face of it at least:

In most cases a horse will have run on three occasions before being allocated a handicap rating. When handicapping a horse for the first time, it is necessary for there to be a clear correlation between the horse’s various performance figures and the handicap rating. Ideally from a handicapping perspective, the three qualifying runs would all be to a similar level, allowing a degree of confidence that the initial handicap rating is accurate.

If a horse returns performance figures of 60, 60 and 60, the Handicapper would almost certainly award an initial handicap rating of 60. The difficulty arises in three very different performance ratings, particularly in the case of a good run followed by two moderate performances. Generally the Handicapper will err on the side of caution with a handicap rating, giving emphasis to the best performance figure as long as that race looks solid.

Obviously, the official handicapper has a frequently horrific job in trying to nail form jelly to the ratings wall. And this was a case in point. Saint Helena, clearly a talented animal on the basis of her flat form on fast ground, had run seven times - four more than the minimum requirement - almost exclusively on soft and heavy, before being awarded an initial handicap rating.

Spot the difference between the win/placed flat form and the mark-seeking hurdles efforts. (Click the image to enlarge)

Saint Helena: Spot The Difference

Saint Helena: Spot The Difference

The British Horseracing Authority, via the on course stewards, called Jim Best in before the race, to explain the absence of Into The Wind. They then called him in after the race to explain the 'apparent' improvement in form of Saint Helena.

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The released notes on that second 'chat' are thus:

The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, SAINT HELENA (IRE), ridden by A P McCoy and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the mare, who had been a very buzzy type in the past, settled better today and had benefited from a break of one hundred and twenty-five days since her last run. He added that the mare was suited by the firmer ground on this occasion. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of SAINT HELENA (IRE) could be reviewed. The Stewards ordered the mare to be routine tested.

It is almost certainly true that Saint Helena was "better suited by the quicker ground" - after all, her best flat form was on quicker. Equally, she looks sure to have "benefited from a break of one hundred and twenty-five days since her last run" on the basis that she might have actually been trained for race fitness during that time.

The case has been referred to High Holborn, and we'll see what the beaks in town make of it.

**

An interesting story for a Wednesday in its own right, the Jim Best plot saga is actually a little older than 24 hours or so. Indeed, Best has multiple 'previous' for such coups, almost all with a matching fingerprint.

A quick 'system builder' query for Jim Best-trained, Tony McCoy-ridden horses running in handicap hurdles without a prior win for the trainer reveals a 47% win rate (15 from 32). Amongst this group of horses, all of which received the McCoy assistance for the first time, were the likes of:

6/08 Noble Minstrel  form F0775 - mark of 72 awarded - 58 days off - wins at 4/1

1/09 Rocky Ryan form 005 - mark of 90 awarded - 61 days off - wins at 15/8

6/13 Planetoid form 089F70 - mark of 85 awarded - 169 days off - wins at 5/6

8/13 Sugar Hiccup form 00070P - mark of 79 awarded - 239 days off - wins at 5/6

7/14 Money Money Money form 40P0 -mark of 80 awarded-250 days off-wins at 5/1

8/14 Kiama Bay form 09503 - mark of 104 awarded - 91 days off - wins at 7/4

9/14 Saint Helena form PP9P080 -mark of 82 awarded-125 days off - wins at 11/10

And the similarities don't end there.

Consider Planetoid. This was a horse that was due to be ridden by Mattie Batchelor, a Jim Best stable stalwart, but with a (seemingly) lamentable record of 0 wins from 71 rides for the yard.

What atrocious luck then to experience "car trouble" on the day of Planetoid's success, having ridden him on three of his unsuccessful prior starts. Lucky for connections, at least, that McCoy was there to take the spare mount. Ahem.

Here are the stewards' notes from Planetoid's win after interviewing the trainer about the apparent improvement in form:

The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, PLANETOID (IRE), ridden by A.P. McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the gelding had problems with his jumping last year and has been given a break in order to re-school him over hurdles. He further added that PLANETOID (IRE) was suited by this quicker ground and running for the first time in a handicap. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of PLANETOID (IRE) could be reviewed. The Stewards ordered the gelding to be routine tested.

And these are the stewards' notes after Sugar Hiccup's win:

The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, SUGAR HICCUP (IRE), ridden by A.P. McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer’s representative who stated that the mare was suited by the faster ground and, having been off the course for 8 months, had been freshened up. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of SUGAR HICCUP (IRE) could be reviewed.

Finally, here's Money Money Money's post race stewards chat:

The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, MONEY MONEY MONEY, ridden by A P McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, compared with its previous run at Fontwell on 13 November 2014 where the mare finished tenth of thirteen, beaten 110 lengths. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the mare had benefited from a break from racing and appeared to appreciate the better ground.

**

What it means for punters...

So a very clear pattern emerges to these Best 'job horses' and, in a racing jurisdiction so heavily based around the art of handicapping, it is a part of the punter's job to be aware of trainer behaviour. Jim Best is not the only exponent of mark manipulation. In fact, some higher profile handlers on the level - Luca Cumani and Sir Mark Prescott, for instance - are positively admired for their ability to 'get one ready'.

When betting in handicaps, punters must ALWAYS be aware of the material differences between today's race and a horse's recent efforts. That's where value lies, perhaps not in heavily gambled animals like Best's, but certainly with the smaller stables who are having a few quid on but passing serenely under the radar.

First time in a handicap always merits attention, especially when combined with a material change in circumstance, such as a step up in trip or markedly differing ground. A break between qualifying for a handicap rating and running in a handicap can also be a sign of expected improvement. After all, if a horse runs a week after qualifying for a mark, that doesn't leave a lot of time to get the beast fit, does it?

A drop in class can often help, as can to a lesser degree the fitting of headgear (especially a hood). These are considerations the smart bettor must make, and they are part of the game. Making those considerations in the microcosm of trainer patterns can be most instructive, and there are no Jim Best's in the list of 'most effective first time in a handicap hurdle after a break'.

No, sir. That list, which in truth probably never existed until now, contains four high profile National Hunt trainers: Nigel Twiston-Davies, Evan Williams, Anthony Honeyball, and Philip Hobbs. How many Class 5 Taunton handicap hurdles do you suppose they've carved up between themselves? And yet, these events pass largely without comment or question.

I guess the key difference is that Best's modus operandi is to take a proven flat performer and 'bugger about' with it to get the mark, whereas the jumps boys are dollying around in novice hurdles and bumpers beforehand. Which is worse, or better? I'm not sure.

What it means for the authorities...

The exaggerated game of cat and mouse between trainers and the official handicappers is one of great importance to the sport, both from an integrity, and from an interest and engagement perspective. And, the truth is that there is very little the authorities can do about things, as they stand.

Jim Best operated within the current rule set.

It is perfectly acceptable for a jockey change to occur when a better option becomes available due to a non-runner in the same race (cf. "25.3.5 the substitute Rider was declared to ride another horse in the same race but the horse is unable to run" from the Rules of Racing).

It is perfectly acceptable for a horse to be self-certificated on account of the ground, or indeed anything else, as long as the trainer does not breach a 15% of declarations threshold (cf. "8.3 For any Trainer, where the rate of non-runners in Jump races measured as a percentage of the Trainer's declarations in Jump races is 15% or more, the Authority may suspend the Trainer's ability to self-certify non-runners in accordance with Rule 97.3 for up to twelve months." from the Rules of Racing).

It is perfectly acceptable for a horse to 'apparently' improve markedly, as long as the trainer or his representative can explain the improvement after the race, should the local stewards deem it appropriate.

To borrow that hackneyed Dickens quote from, I think, Oliver Twist,

If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.

The BHA's eyes have been opened by experience. They are all too aware of the issue here. They spoke to Best both before and after the race; and they are due to call him in again in due course to discuss the matter further. (That said, they're still due to discuss the Planetoid run with him, fifteen months after the race. Perhaps they can discuss them, along with Sugar Hiccup, Money Money Money, and Kiama Bay, as a job lot... with the emphasis on the word 'job').

The key question for the BHA to answer themselves, rather than necessarily bring Best to book, is around the allocation of a handicap mark. It is usual practice for a horse to receive a mark after three runs, if not winning once or placing twice before that time. The handicappers already have discretion to await further evidence, and this discretionary power has been invoked in six of the seven cases mentioned above.

I am led to believe by the twitterati that Saint Helena's seven runs before a rating was allocated constitutes something of a record. But, while that insistence of further evidence is to be admired - and may be the solution to the problem ultimately, at least in part - it is unclear why the 'capper relented after seven inscrutable efforts.

It should be reasonable for the official handicapper to require as many runs as is necessary to give an opening mark or, alternatively, to give a deliberately cautious mark - to the tune of two stone, let's say - in agreement with the trainer. All trainers have a dialogue with the handicappers, and I imagine the next chinwag between David Dickinson, under whose remit most of the above cases fell, and Jim Best will be interesting...

Perhaps a horse should be initially required to run in three handicaps within x% of the race distance of those it raced in to qualify for a mark. That might make it more difficult for trainers to run horses over the wrong trip. Or perhaps a horse must run over the trip for which it is most obviously bred - with a percentage of latitude - prior to being awarded a mark.

These suggestions are somewhat left field, and I'd hate to see any of them introduced for the simple reason that they'd be a triumph of job creation, whilst most likely opening up new loopholes for trainers to figure out and subsequently exploit.

Nope, I think that whilst the governance of self-certification and the allocation of initial handicap ratings can - and must - be improved, the game can - and should - be allowed to continue largely unimpeded by further legislation.

We now all know the hallmarks of a Jim Best punt, so at the very least, the next time one is afoot, we can get involved!

Matt

p.s. what are your thoughts on this most contentious of issues? Leave a comment and let us know.