Racing moves off the back pages only when its opponents have bad news to gloat over. Two examples lately have been the disciplining of Irish jump jockey Davy Russell for striking a wayward horse, and the death of the Flat-racer Permian, trained in Yorkshire by Mark Johnston, after he broke a leg as he crossed the finishing line at Arlington Park in Illinois.
The Russell saga reminded me of the morality tale of the frozen bird in a Russian forest that falls from the sky exhausted. A kindly hunter places the tiny creature inside his fur jacket, where it thaws. Anxious to carry on his shooting, the hunter spots a heap of still-steaming elk dung and places the creature in it to continue its recovery. Restored to health, the rescued bird sits up and sings joyously. Unfortunately, his song alerts a passing wolf, who snaps him up for lunch thus confirming that ‘He who places you in the shit is not necessarily your enemy. He who gets you out of the shit is not necessarily your friend. But if you are in the shit, at all costs don’t sing about it.’
Before a race at Tramore, Davy Russell’s mount Kings Dolly approached the ‘show’ hurdle at speed and halted abruptly, lifting him out of the saddle. The jockey, who insisted he did so without malice, and only to get the horse back under control, then punched Kings Dolly on the neck. Soon a video clip and comments began circulating on social media. Russell complained of media harassment, and with his defenders insisting that the blow wouldn’t have damaged Kings Dolly the jockey escaped initially with an official caution. In reaction to the media furore over such leniency, the Irish Turf authorities recalled the case to an appeals body under a former supreme court judge. He imposed a five-day riding ban on Russell for ‘conduct prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing’, reduced by one day because of the ‘strain and pressure’ exerted on Davy by the media.
Like the rest of racing, Davy Russell, a genius at Cheltenham and a true horseman who achieves his results more often than not by notably sympathetic handling of his mounts rather than by whip-happy aggression, knew perfectly well that he had done wrong and harmed racing’s image. The official who initially let him off with a caution did not do him a kindness — he simply ensured that the wolves would circle closer. Every sport is now under the all-seeing eyes of snap-happy citizens and social-media bloggers.
A more unpleasant example of social media’s role came with the tragedy of Permian’s death at Arlington Park. The colt had won the Dante Stakes at York, a recognised Derby trial, and the King Edward Stakes at Royal Ascot. At the end of the American race on 12 August, Permian stumbled and unseated his jockey William Buick. Sadly, he had broken a foreleg. Assistant trainer Charlie Johnston, who had travelled with him to the US, ran to assess the extent of the horse’s injuries. Immediately, he phoned his father to tell him that Permian must be spared further suffering and asked the racecourse vets to euthanise their stable star as quickly as possible.
As Charlie confirms in the stable’s monthly journal, the Kingsley Klarion, he told a press agency at the time that he got to Permian within 30 seconds of the accident. Unfortunately, this was reported as ‘I was with him for 30 seconds’ and that was enough for the Twitter trolls. While good folk on social media sent messages of condolence to Mark, Charlie and all connected with a popular horse, the other sort posted hurtful ones suggesting that a noble beast’s life had been written off callously within half a minute, that Permian had been over-raced and that ‘inexperienced staff’ had been sent to the US with the horse.
They could not have been more wrong. Mark Johnston, a trainer for 30 years, is famous for the fitness of his charges and Permian was a sound horse who never missed a day’s exercise. Both Mark and Charlie his son, who is 26, are qualified vets and every issue of the Klarion carries a feature by the stable vet illustrating the symptoms and treatment of regular horse ailments. In Illinois the horse came first to the extent that Charlie later apologised to the injured jockey William Buick (who had fractured his T12 vertebrae) for leaving him to the care of others as he dashed to reach his stricken horse.
Regrettably, when horses break their legs, in nine cases out of ten the only humane course is to have them put down and it is far better to do that while they are still cushioned against the full pain of the injury by the racing adrenaline still coursing through their system. Charlie Johnston was in fact doing the kindest thing he could do for poor Permian. The sad thing about social media is that it gives equal exposure to the opinions of those genuinely in the know and to the pig-ignorant.