Roger Alton

In defence of horse racing

In defence of horse racing
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Rugby has enough problems — from baffling rule changes to concussion — without the referees muddying the pitch even more. Pascal Gaüzère, who officiated in last weekend’s gripping Triple Crown encounter in Cardiff, has told a senior official at World Rugby that he shouldn’t have let Wales’s controversial first two tries stand. It is an interesting confession but I doubt many on the other side of the Severn Bridge would agree with him.

Rugby and football refs, like traffic wardens and estate agents, will always be hate figures, with notable exceptions such as Nigel Owens, who has become a national treasure, or the legendary Pierluigi Collina, who memorably said that ‘football is an imperfect game and I don’t understand why we try to make it perfect’. Refs are human and they occasionally make mistakes in a very demanding job. Human error is part of the fun of sport, and the current frenzy is ridiculous, especially over football and VAR. The essence of sport is its human drama, its unpredictability. It is played to be watched with the human eye, not under a microscope.

At least with rugby, spectators have no doubt what’s happening and why. The referees are mic’d up and players and spectators, in the ground and at home, can hear everything. Gaüzère provided a very clear running commentary and had a long conversation with all the other officials over whether Louis Rees-Zammit knocked on or not. Answer: probably yes, despite what Gaüzère decided.

But if rugby refs can provide this commentary, why not football refs? If football was mic’d up, the on-field behaviour would be transformed. The Australian A-League has been experimenting with mic’d referees, and the results are terrific. You realise how much the refs talk, and how the players respect their decisions. Jarred Gillett is an Aussie ref now working here; his last A-League game is on YouTube and is a superb example of how good a mic’d up ref can make the experience of watching football. I have always thought British life would be transformed if footballers, like rugby players, had to call the ref ‘Sir’. But that’s too much to ask, I guess.

I suppose the BBC reckons that accepting duff Premier League matches is better than nothing. But I wonder. After a dreary goalless draw between Crystal Palace and Fulham last Sunday, I was reminded of the story of the football reporter who described a similarly insipid encounter as being ‘much ado about nothing-nothing’. But even this attempt at a little cheer fell flat as the sub-editor changed it to ‘much ado about nil-nil’.

After Tiger Woods took driving into the rough to new levels, several fellow professionals — from Rory McIlroy to Tommy Fleetwood and Jon Rahm — tried to honour their stricken colleague on the final round of a tournament in Florida by wearing Tiger’s traditional last day red top/black trousers combo. It didn’t do them much good though: none of them came in the top three. Difficult shoes — and outfits — to fill.

Horse racing has had its image problems before, but rarely so brutally as the champion Irish trainer Gordon Elliott pictured sitting astride a deceased horse and making flippant gestures at a chum. It is hard to overestimate Elliott’s status in Irish racing — the equivalent of Jürgen Klopp in football. Like many in racing, Elliott is a prat, but they have a more robust approach to animal welfare in Ireland than here: ‘Where there’s livestock there’s dead stock,’ the old joke goes. It’s a far cry from our modern woke world. We can only hope that this little episode doesn’t blind us to the thrilling and very courageous reality of great horse racing.