In the first such case for 20 years, former rider Freddy Tylicki, paralysed and wheelchair-bound since his mount Nellie Dean clipped heels in a Kempton Flat race with Madame Butterfly, ridden by Graham Gibbons, has been suing Gibbons for £6 million in the High Court. Arguments have centred on whether Gibbons made a fractional misjudgment in an ambitious manoeuvre or whether he showed a punishable disregard for his colleagues’ safety.
It hasn’t helped racing’s image that Gibbons is a jockey with a history of drink problems and that former champion jockey Jim Crowley testified that he smelled alcohol on Gibbons’s breath that day. Judgment will come before Christmas and while the racing world has immense sympathy for Tylicki, if his case succeeds there could be wide ramifications for the future of a sport in which riders often have to make split-second decisions. Will we still praise a rider and his horse for having the ‘courage’ to go for a narrow gap? Will they still dare try?
Even bigger headlines have been caused by the British Horseracing Authority’s disciplinary panel hearing into jumps rider Bryony Frost’s complaint of bullying and harassment by her fellow rider Robbie Dunne. She has testified that he opened his towel and waved his genitals at her in the dressing room, and that he has used misogynistic abuse. He admits only one instance after a race in which he alleges her manoeuvre led to his horse falling and having to be destroyed. One course attendant testified to his amazement on hearing Dunne call Frost ‘a fucking slut’ in front of other jockeys, one of whom, Adam Wedge, then told the BHA there was ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ about the exchange.
Frost’s description of sexual horseplay between Dunne and another female jockey has been denied by that female jockey and tellingly Frost told the panel: ‘The isolation I have found from speaking out, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.’ Of the other female jockeys who have failed to back her complaints she says: ‘They all have licences [to ride] so what they say will have to be limited. They have to walk into that weighing room every day and I feel they are protecting themselves by staying neutral.’
Like many jump racing enthusiasts, I was brought up on romantic tales of the camaraderie of the weighing room, a milieu once memorably compared by former Cheltenham supremo Edward Gillespie to the canteens in which wartime fighter pilots awaited the scramble for their next sortie. I was once allowed, 25 years ago, to spend a day in the jockeys’ changing room at Newbury and I saw the way in which they looked after each other, sharing cigarettes and lifts to the next day’s meeting, conspiring to help a concussed rider to pass the medical inspection so he didn’t lose rides, limping stoically to the physio’s couch with bumps and knobbles on frequently mended collarbones and puckered scars from previously broken bones and worse. There were, too, juvenile jokes as the then occasional lady rider entered, eyes firmly fixed to the front, to collect her parcel of colours. One trainer’s wife, a rider told me, was much in demand for her after-dinner speech entitled ‘jockeys’ willies’.
What is at stake in Bryony’s case is that traditional weighing-room culture, typified by the male rider who tweeted: ‘Bad form going to the BHA… say what you have to say. Take it on the chin, move forward.’ Some male riders want the only females involved in racing to be those prepared to rub along with lads’ culture. There are senior riders, such as the much-respected Tom Scudamore, who have complaints about Bryony’s style of riding. That is fine so long as it is not expressed in the kind of wordage she claimed Robbie Dunne used.
And let us be honest. Part of this is about the little green-eyed god of envy. At only 26, Bryony Frost has won a string of top races. She is not only a talented rider with a remarkable capacity for getting horses into a good jumping rhythm but she is blessed with an extraordinary gift for bringing to life, in a bubbling stream of words, the race she has just ridden. She is a broadcaster’s dream and a massive asset to her sport. What she says is not girly gush but vivid analysis that lifts viewer and reader into the saddle with her.
I remember the scorn with which her employer Paul Nicholls talked to me about another jockey who had worked for him who shed tears after losing a race. Bryony wouldn’t be working for him if there was softness at her core, as she showed last Saturday by winning the Tingle Creek on Greaneteen at the end of the most stressful week of her life.
Paul now says the weighing room has been a little bit left behind by the modern world. The sooner it catches up and finds a comfortable space within it for Bryony the better.