|Fri 14 Oct 2011
Where the BHA went wrong over the
Racing is in
crisis on the eve of Ascot's Champions Day, the most valuable card ever staged
in Britain. How has this happened?
If you take 10 months over a
single task, the result had better not unravel in four days. Alas for the
British Horseracing Authority, their new rules on whip use (drawn up after much
pondering) have caused an almighty storm which appears very damaging to the
sport's image and to their own reputation for competence, such as it was.
The review process is more secret than might be
expected I was politely rebuffed when asking who had given evidence
but I think it is possible to identify a number of wrong turns for which
the BHA is at least largely responsible.
I am not a fan of whipping
and, about 18 months ago, used this space to outline the possible benefits to
the sport if we decided to prevent jockeys from using whips to make horses go
faster. So you might think that I'd be in favour of the new restrictions.
But I also love racing and wish it would thrive. At the moment, these
new rules are an obstacle between the sport and any rosier future.
Here's hoping the BHA is not so hidebound as to resist necessary
amendments. Here are the five basic mistakes which have led them to this sorry
1) Singling out the jockeys
A jockey who
breaches the new rules pays a serious price. In addition to a ban of at least
five days, they lose their fee for that race and any share of prize money they
may have earned from it.
No one pretends this is fair. The penalties
are harsh because it is hoped they will have a deterrent effect. But that
effect would have been significantly enhanced if trainers and owners were also
to lose their prize money when their jockey breaks the rules.
must, after all, bow to his employers. Even now, it is perfectly possible to
imagine a trainer or owner telling their jockey: "You must win this if you
possibly can. Don't worry about the flaming whip rules or the 20-day suspension
you might get. Win this and you'll ride every one of my horses for as long as
you can climb into the saddle."
Yes, there is a rule that bars owners
or trainers from reimbursing the rider after a whip-rule breach. But it is
continued employment that matters most to jockeys. Next month, your ban and
your fine will be forgotten but you will still have a loyal supporter if you
got his horse home in front when it mattered.
If, when a jockey breaks
the rules, the trainer and owner also lose their prize money, they may suddenly
be much more keen to stress the importance of staying within the rules. The
jockey may also be more keen to avoid trouble, knowing that it would cost his
employers as well as himself.
It is no answer to say that owners or
trainers cannot, from their position in the stands, control how many times
their jockey uses the whip. In this country, as in many others, employers are
responsible for what their employees do in the course of their job. If he broke
the rules, it is at least in part because you didn't pick someone who could be
trusted or trained to stay within them. Why should you be allowed to benefit
from his transgression?
Putting the whole weight of compliance on the
shoulders of the jockeys is unfair. It has also led to some of the unfavourable
coverage this week because many riders, normally reluctant to moan about their
lot, have been sufficiently outraged to speak their minds in public.
2) Putting strict limits on the number of hits
It seems that
those jockeys who gave evidence to the review group made a plea for certainty.
The old whip rules were so imprecise that, inevitably, they were enforced in
different ways at different tracks and at different times.
whip rules achieve certainty by specifying strict, low limits for the number of
times a horse can be hit. But, surprise, jockeys are now upset by the loss of
In the first three days of their application, the rules
were breached by riders of the calibre of Richard Hughes and William Buick. We
know from familiarity with these men that they are talented, intelligent and
have no great history of pushing rules to their limits just for the sake of it.
On Monday, Hughes used his whip once too often and knew it, but one of
his strokes was intended to keep his horse from bumping into a rival and, he
believed, would not be counted against him.
He was wrong. The rules
allow for no appreciation of the difficulties facing a jockey. If you have used
up your allowed number of hits, you cannot then take your hands off the rein to
use the whip for any reason, not even to prevent your mount from swerving
towards the rail where spectators stand, innocent of any danger.
jockeys are already finding, it is not easy to keep count of your whip strokes
when there is so much else to think about in mid-race. It is not always clear
when you have passed the furlong pole, after which you are limited to five
Willing and talented jockeys are finding that these rules are
hard to obey and yet the punishment for failure is extremely stiff. It is a
combination that invites rebellion rather than respect. Whatever the review
body was told by jockeys, it should have had the sense to see that a strict
numerical limit on the number of hits was just asking for trouble.
3) Failing to keep the jockeys onside
Tony McCoy told another
reporter at Huntingdon on Tuesday that the BHA had brought some of the negative
coverage on themselves by failing to ensure jockeys were properly briefed about
the new rules before they were published. Many of them, he said, were shocked
to discover the financial penalties they would face for a breach.
certainly chimes with my experience that day, when almost every rider I spoke
to expressed bitter resentment of the idea that their fees could be taken off
them, even after they had completed the job. Most were prepared to accept the
concept of harsh punishment for whip breaches, in the form of lengthened bans,
but railed against the idea of forfeiting prize money and, especially, their
This doesn't seem to make financial sense. A jockey's riding fee
is just over £100 and his share of prize money may not be much more for
the kind of low-value race that you get on so many cards these days. A 15-day
ban, on the other hand, could cost him a significant four-figure sum.
Nevertheless, this is how jockeys feel. If I break the rules, you can stop
me riding for a few days but you can't take off me money that I'd already
Given that position, it seems the BHA has started a bitter
fight for no good reason. Surely lengthy bans would be enough to show that the
new rules had teeth, without also insisting on taking money that the riders are
so loth to part with.
Perhaps the review body was misled by those
people who should have been representing the jockeys' opinions during the
review. Those people certainly don't seem to have done much of a job.
But, given the decision to punish only the jockeys for whip breaches, and
given that the punishments would be so harsh, it was imperative for the BHA to
make sure that jockeys generally were persuaded that the new system was the
best way forward. Instead, the entire profession seems close to revolt.
It is a disaster for the BHA to have so thoroughly lost the goodwill of so
many racing professionals. Its various functionaries have not been elected and
have no divine right to rule. They govern unchallenged only for as long as the
governed are happy to accept that state of affairs, so it is surely a mistake
to test their patience to this extent.
4) Failing to stress the
qualities of the modern whip
The sport has not clamped down on whip use
for welfare reasons, but for public relations reasons. Use of the whip is not
thought to be cruel, but we are concerned that it looks cruel to people who
know no better.
The modern, air-cushioned whip has been in use for
years. Used correctly, it encourages a horse to quicken without inflicting pain
(or so we are told it is not possible to be sure whether the horse feels
pain or not).
Richard Hughes recently told me and another journalist
that he could hit us with his stick and we would feel nothing more than the
momentary chagrin of being assaulted by a high-profile sportsman. We didn't
test the theory but I now wish we had. I would like to be able to tell you if
he was right and one of these days I will summon the courage to put the
experiment into effect.
If everyone in the sport is persuaded that the
whip is such an innocuous instrument, then why put such severe limits on its
use and hammer those jockeys who step so much as an inch over the line?
Whatever we believe, the wider public currently has no reason to
imagine that the whip is anything other than what it looks like, an evil rod
that would bring tears to your eyes if a professional belted you with it.
Let the BHA have the courage of its convictions. Before it makes any
more moves to curb whip use, why not try explaining to everyone that this might
not, actually, be necessary?
There are still some
people prepared to argue that the timing of the new rules doesn't matter, that
there would have been controversy whenever they were introduced and there would
never have been a perfect time.
Those are fair points. Still, while
there might not have been a good time, this week has proved to be a very bad
Whip-related controversies have completely taken over
coverage of the sport in papers and on TV, radio and internet. Champions Day on
Saturday has struggled to get a look-in. The British press has not been able to
give it anything like the same buildup that was given to the Arc de Triomphe a
fortnight ago, which seems a pity, since this is supposed to be our answer to
that fine day's racing in Paris.
If I were one of the Qatari royals who
have helped raise the prize money for Saturday to £3m, I would be
thoroughly disgusted by the way the event has been marginalised by a
predictable controversy. I might be thinking that there was little merit in
handing all that money to a sport so cack-handed as to squander it in this way.
Consider also the sheer quantity of heartache that was necessary in
order to create this day's racing, wresting a Group One from Newmarket and
revising the autumn programme so thoroughly as to outrage some within the
sport. All that trauma could only be justified if the final event was a great
The BHA took 10 months over its whip review. There would, I
submit, have been no complaints had they timed publication for the Monday after
Champions Day, rather than three weeks before. Even if some were prepared to
suggest that the timing was cynically contrived, that would have been a much
happier outcome than what has in fact happened.
There may be few
low-key Saturdays in the racing calendar but almost any of them would have been
a better first Saturday for the new whip rules than this one. Personally, I
can't see why 1 January was not chosen as the best start date, around 10 weeks
before any race that could really be called high-profile. Flat-racing jockeys
would have had three months to try out the new rules on the all-weather before
the turf season opened.
Instead, it seems that many of those involved
in the review felt satisfied that five days before the brand new Champions Day
was a perfectly good time to kick things off. If anyone at the BHA objected, we
have not heard from them. Was there really no one to speak up and say, hold on
a minute, guys, this is idiotic
Racing's ruling bodies have done
some stupid things in the 25 years since I started following the sport but I
can't think of a more grievous blunder that could so easily have been avoided.
A plc that damaged its own interests in this way would make a point of firing
someone in a very public manner.
In the BHA's case, I don't imagine a
single dismissal would be fair or especially productive. But, as an
organisation, it looks less competent than ever before. Acknowledging this
mistake would be a first step towards recovering some of the respect which has
haemorrhaged from it in the last few days.