One of Alan Bennett’s characters once lamented, ‘We tried to set up a small anarchist community ...but people wouldn’t obey the rules.’ Perhaps he should have found a job within horse-racing. Just look at the aftermath to this year’s St Leger. I was at Bath Races that day when the authorities thoughtfully broadcast the Doncaster Classic on their big screen, and I am not writing without prejudice. Some near the Bath screen endured the undignified spectacle of a tan-trousered spectator, now well qualified for his bus pass, giving a passable imitation of a whirling dervish while shouting home Ralph Beckett’s filly Simple Verse as she flashed first past the post after a battle with Bondi Beach. Your correspondent was celebrating an 8–1 winner who had shown courage in driving through a gap and resisting a rival who challenged her again in the final strides. But then came the bing-bong announcing a stewards’ inquiry. ‘Thank God it wasn’t in France,’ I told Mrs Oakley on the phone as we anticipated a good dinner out. ‘French stewards are very tough — any hint of interference and they chuck out the winner. Here the race nearly always stays with the horse who went first past the post unless its rider has committed a really blatant offence.’ I was too hasty. The Doncaster stewards deliberated and decided that Simple Verse’s jockey, Andrea Atzeni, in forcing his way out had bumped Bondi Beach and had done so again during the last half-furlong. Bondi Beach and jockey Colm O’Donoghue were awarded the race and it was back to scrambled eggs in front of the TV reruns.
Many were surprised, including André Fabre, the nearly perpetual champion trainer in France. He declared, ‘I agree very much with the British stewards as they always let the best horse keep the race. In this case, it was different.’ But Simple Verse’s connections appealed and last week a British Horseracing Authority disciplinary panel, paying more attention than the Doncaster stewards to Bondi Beach’s leaning on Simple Verse and ruling that the two bumps hadn’t improved the filly’s finishing position, handed the victory back to Simple Verse.
Bondi Beach’s trainer Aidan O’Brien accepted the decision with grace. Both he and Ralph Beckett like to secure their victories on the track, not in the stewards’ room, but it would have been tough on Ralph to lose out. The same week he lost an appeal against a disqualification in America. There his Secret Gesture had swerved off a true line when clearly winning the Grade 1 Beverly D at Arlington Park. The race was awarded to an American runner whose jockey had given such a theatrical performance of ‘snatching up’ his mount (the racing equivalent of a football ‘dive’) that he should have been nominated for an Oscar.
On St Leger day we had another example of the many-sidedness of justice in racing when Derby winner Golden Horn jinked violently across the course at Leopardstown, bumping and hindering his main rival Free Eagle in winning the Irish Champion Stakes. The Irish stewards allowed Golden Horn to keep the race.
Racing is not just a sport. The accompanying breeding industry makes it an important international business, too, and we need much more effort to co-ordinate rules and penalties in different countries. An International Harmonisation of Race Day Rules Committee is at work covering the racing jurisdictions of eight nations, but it is proceeding slowly. In particular, there is little sign of any co-ordination of the rules on use of the whip. British authorities, after painful blunders and three rounds of amendments, have established a workable set of rules. In Flat races riders are permitted a maximum of seven strokes, over jumps it is eight. But penalties are not automatic: exceeding those limits is merely a trigger for the stewards to consider whether disciplinary action is required. In the US, when the great American Pharaoh won this year’s Kentucky Derby, his jockey Victor Espinoza struck him 30 times.
Even here we are yet to face up to the really big decision, which, as the sage Sir Mark Prescott has pointed out, could make all the difference: whipping abuses will never really cease until blatant abuse of those rules results in the disqualification of horses whose riders have transgressed. Tough on owners and trainers, yes, but it is those owners and trainers who instruct the jockey. At the moment several top races are won every season by jockeys who have broken the whip rules while those in second place have obeyed them. It happened at Goodwood in May when Crowley’s Law, trained by Tom Dascombe and ridden by Richard Kingscote, lost out in a tight finish to Don’t Be, ridden by Chris Catlin. Catlin was banned for a week and fined £300 for using his whip excessively, but it was Don’t Be’s connections who collected the £22,684 first prize. Pointedly the former international footballer Michael Owen, joint owner of Dascombe’s yard, inquired, ‘Is racing the only sport where you get rewarded for breaking the rules?’