Two weeks ago I was in Quebec lecturing on, among other things, politicians and drink. The best moment in my research was encountering a Canadian blogger who declared, ‘We’ve had more abstainers than drunks in our Prime Minister’s office. The country has been reasonably well run, but Jeez, it’s been dull.’
It certainly hasn’t been a dull fortnight in racing as controversy has raged about the new rules on use of the whip. From Canadian waters, noting that jockeys such as Frankie Dettori and Tony McCoy had backed the reforms, I welcomed them too. I still back reform. Racing needs public approval and bigger crowds and the public response to whip use has to be heeded. But in the way they introduced the rules, and the punishments they decreed for those found contravening them, the British Horseracing Authority formed a circular firing squad.
The first Champions Day at Ascot, 15 October, was planned as Britain’s richest and most exciting day’s racing ever, featuring the wondrous Frankel. So it was, but because the BHA chose to introduce the rule changes that week sporting headlines were dominated for a fortnight not by Champions Day but by endless stories about jockeys being found in breach of the new whip regulations.
Ascot’s attempts to cement its position as a hub of international racing suffered a huge setback when the incredulous Christophe Soumillon, the Belgian who is one of Europe’s leading riders, lost his £50,000 share of the Champion Stakes prize money for giving his horse one smack more than the newly permitted five in the final furlong.
Dettori and McCoy, it turns out, had effectively been suckered into their public support. Richard Hughes, probably the best jockey in Britain, refused to ride again until the rules were changed and riders both on the Flat and over jumps were incensed both at the complexity of the new rules and the scale of the penalties.