It was a wonderful day for horseracing at Worcester yesterday, with a huge blue, late-summer sky framing the lush, tree-lined course, and the River Severn flowing languorously past. But what is flowing through the body politic of racing at the moment is close to pure poison, with a bitter dispute between the jockeys, who keep the show on the road, and the Jockey Club, which keeps the show clean.
If you have glimpsed groups of small men in multi-coloured clothes milling around over the past week you can be assured that they were not an early promotion for the pantomime season or a street-theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. What you were witnessing was a protest by British jockeys about restrictions on the use of mobile phones recently imposed by horseracing's regulators.
The protest escalated during the week, with jockeys walking off racecourses on to the streets outside to make calls on their phones. It culminated on Friday, when today's meeting at Sandown Park was cancelled after a boycott by jockeys resulted in only a handful being left willing to ride. Superficially, it might seem a trivial dispute, arguments about the use of mobile phones being the daily bread of most parents with teenagers, or teachers with pupils. But both sides seem to be preparing for a long battle.
The crowd at the track seemed happier to bathe in the warm sunshine than to reflect on a row that could become more bitter than the 1975 stable lads' dispute, when there were sit-down protests on the track. "They'll sort it out as soon as they realise what money they're all losing," one punter said. "There's no point banning phones here anyway, because the signal's crap."
The champion jump jockey, Tony McCoy, who is leading the protest by his colleagues - as Philip Robinson is doing for the flat jockeys - described the atmosphere at last week's meeting when talks broke down. "It was all very tense on both sides," he said. "There seemed to be very little room for compromise on their part. We're happy to accept some restrictions, but some of the conditions the Jockey Club is imposing are ridiculous. At Southwell the other day, they supplied us with phones in place of our own but none of them would even work!"
Now, you might be wondering why the Jockey Club should be picking on jockeys, but you ought to know that the Jockey Club doesn't have jockeys in it. You can't apply to become a member, or get someone to propose you. Its members are chosen by existing members, and they are typically rich landowners or titled gentry. In short, the Jockey Club makes the House of Lords look like a hippy commune.
While it's true that members have interests in racing and that the Club owns several racecourses, its powers are now restricted to disciplinary, supervisory and integrity matters. By banning jockeys from using mobile phones during race meetings, the Jockey Club is attempting to preserve the integrity of racing by damming any flow of "inside information" from the weighing room, the jockeys' inner sanctum, to those outside who might exploit it.
Naturally, the jockeys see this as a slur on their reputation and an unnecessary restriction on the business they have to do between races - calling their agents, getting bookings from trainers, making travel arrangements. A proposed compromise, involving a monitored "phone-zone", seems almost comically bureaucratic.
Rightly or wrongly, the jockeys sense a bit of feudal oppression bearing down on them. The senior steward of the Jockey Club, Julian Richmond-Watson, raised the possibility of going to law to impose the Club's restrictions. The Jockeys' Association chairman, Michael Caulfield, is examining a similar route.
The background to a dispute that has polarised racing in very quick time lies in last year's revelations on the BBC programmes Panorama and Kenyon Confronts, and in the appearance at a criminal trial of a former jump jockey, Graham Bradley. Although only appearing as a character witness, he guilelessly revealed that while riding he had regularly phoned tips through to Brian Wright from the weighing rooms of various racecourses.
Wright, a drugs baron on the run, had befriended Bradley and other jockeys. Known as "Uncle" or "The Milkman", Wright was alleged to have laundered drugs profits through betting, rewarding his jockey informants with extensive hospitality and "presents". Mr Bradley, who had also revealed other indiscretions in his autobiography, The Wayward Lad, was duly interviewed by the Jockey Club and "warned off" - banned from racecourses and other premises - for eight years, later reduced to five on appeal. The phone ban is an attempt to curtail further miscreants.
Although the boycott of Sandown today involves flat jockeys, the jump boys in action at Worcester yesterday are likely to join soon, with a Fontwell Park meeting on 23 September being targeted. "The mood in the weighing room is pretty solidly in favour of the protest," said Mr McCoy. "Obviously, what's happening to Sandown is not good for racing, but it probably needed to happen to give us a chance of the dispute being resolved."
Mr McCoy, who had a terrible fall in the first race - in which his horse Alpha Noble was killed - and limped stiffly back to the weighing room, knows only too well the price his body has paid to reach the pinnacle of his career. But if the single-mindedness that he brings to his riding is taken into the next meeting with the Jockey Club, the odds could swing in favour of a win for the jockeys.
Flat out: a jockey's day
Flat or jumps, a jockey's day begins early. In the summer, riding work at a trainer's stable can begin at the stroke of dawn. Clive Brittain, an established trainer based at Newmarket, is a legendary early riser and can often order his "first lot" out at 4am. In the winter, there's a later, but much colder, start.
In both codes, the jockey's duty can range from schooling a novice jumper to taking an expensive horse on a gentle trot. Most jockeys will breakfast on nothing more than tea and toast to keep their weight down. Even then, an hour in the sauna may be necessary. Flat jockeys are smaller than their jumps counterparts and have to be prepared to ride at under eight stones (50kg) if necessary. The jumps boys are bigger, and the minimum weight they have to do is 10 stones. In both codes, "wasting" - rapid dieting - is a regular requirement.
By 9am, a jockey's phone will be humming. Some trainers ring direct to see if they can book a rider, others go through the jockey's agent. The trick is to maximise riding opportunities and minimise travel. But if you want to get ahead you may have to say "yes" to one ride up at Hamilton Park in Scotland.
Then it's the drive to the racecourse: in a sponsored car if you're lucky, with a driver if you're really lucky, and in a plane or a helicopter if you ride for a very rich owner.
Six or seven rides a day are the maximum, though this figure can double when there is evening racing in the summer. Then it's back home for six hours' sleep.
Next season flat jockeys will find themselves riding every Sunday apart from Easter. Flat jockeys get smaller fees (around £77 a ride to the jump boys' £95), but the prize money, and therefore their percentage, is greater.Reuse content