Racing: First it was Zidane in the World Cup final. Now a jockey is accused of headbutting his horse after the 3.10 at Stratford...
At least Zinedine Zidane's attack was on the same species when he wrought his vengeance on the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final.
Unlike Zidane, the jockey Paul O'Neill is unable to plead verbal provocation - for his apparent victim was a horse, albeit the notoriously unco-operative City Affairs. The Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA) confirmed yesterday that it was taking action over the incident on Sunday.
O'Neill, an apprentice, unseated on the way to the start at Stratford, caught hold of the reins. He appeared to square up to the animal and then butt him smartly on the nose. Though the jockey was wearing a riding helmet, City Affairs stared back with a magnificent blend of apathy and mockery.
John O'Shea, the horse's trainer, was not aware of the episode until yesterday and did not wish to comment on O'Neill's conduct until seeing the footage captured by the specialist channel, At The Races.
"It was only Paul's second ride for me and I wouldn't know him well enough to say that it was out of character," O'Shea said. "What I would say is that the horse himself seemed transformed at the races. It was his first run for me and he had seemed very straightforward at home, but it was a different story at the track. He was very difficult in the saddling boxes; he was kicking the stable to bits. In the end we had to saddle him outside.
"Then when they cantered down to look at the first hurdle, he refused to come back and Paul had to take his feet out of the irons [stirrups] and get him back that way. Then I heard the commentator say that Paul had been unseated, and nearly thrown on to a car. I didn't see that, and wasn't aware of anything else until people started calling me about it. Certainly Paul didn't mention it afterwards; he just said that the horse had been very difficult and that in future it might be an idea to have him led to the start."
Having remounted, O'Neill got City Affairs home in fourth place, albeit in a mere selling hurdle - the lowest category of race. Judging from the way he rode in the finish, moreover, they had not resolved their differences. The stewards summoned O'Neill after the race and cautioned him for having used his whip "without allowing the horse sufficient time to respond".
But they were unable to punish O'Neill for his earlier behaviour because none of their own cameras were filming. At The Races have, in the meantime, forwarded a video to the HRA, whose spokesman confirmed that the jockey would be summoned to a hearing at its headquarters in London next week. "The footage has now been reviewed," Paul Struthers, a spokesman, said. "Paul O'Neill will have to face a disciplinary panel hearing on a charge of improper riding. We did receive one or two calls expressing concern, but were able to offer our assurances that the incident is being dealt with."
In fairness to O'Neill, one of the most talented young jump jockeys on the scene, his conduct could sooner be described as petulant than malicious. He is not the first jockey to lose his temper with a recalcitrant mount on a hot summer day, though the only known case of a man being able to punch a horse to the ground can be found in the spoof western, Blazing Saddles.
In August 2003, Eddie Ahern was banned for four days after dismounting a filly who was refusing to go down to the start at Bath. He kicked her in the belly, though once again succeeded only in making himself look ridiculous. The filly did not turn a hair and won the race easily.
Zidane, meanwhile, should be grateful Fifa does not have the penalties available to trainers when dissatisfied with a racehorse. One of the most progressive Flat runners in Britain is named in the footballer's honour. A couple of weeks ago, he was well beaten when favourite for a historic handicap at Newmarket, and his trainer revealed yesterday that Zidane has just been gelded. One can only imagine what Signor Materazzi might do with that information.
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