The Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA) last night cleared the cloud of poison released so unnecessarily after the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot last month. After a prolonged and often impassioned hearing, its disciplinary panel decided to allow Seamus Heffernan's appeal against a 14-day ban for "team tactics".
Heffernan will still face a brief suspension, the duration has yet to be decided, for a minor riding infringement. But he was exonerated of the obnoxious charge that his priority on Ivan Denisovich was to hinder opposition to his stablemate, George Washington - as alleged by Frankie Dettori, who was riding Librettist and brought an undignified protest to the racecourse stewards after the race. It was one thing for that panel to allow its judgement to be blistered by the overheated complaints of a man whose previous achievements at Ascot might deceive him that he owned the place. But while video analysis yesterday allowed sufficient debate for two sets of lawyers to trouser their fee, there was no way anyone should have been there in the first place.
This was a storm in a teacup, yet somehow it became a spat over the most emotive of sporting allegations: cheating. As a result, the fissure between the Turf's two superpowers - O'Brien's patrons at Coolmore Stud, and Dettori's employers, the Maktoum family - risks being cleft into an abyss.
As a witness yesterday, Dettori resembled a schoolboy, sullenly repeating himself rather than address fresh questions. He grumbled that "Mr 'Effernan" had kept him wider than he wanted to be through the middle of the race. "From being three off the rail now I'm seven off the rail," he said. "It was completely unnecessary and completely against my will. The only way I could have got nearer the rail would be by knocking him over." Asked why he had deliberately kept wide early from stall one, he said: "In my heart of hearts, I had a funny feeling this would happen."
In contrast, O'Brien produced an eye-opening display of vehemence and conviction. Before O'Brien was summoned, the HRA's counsel, Graeme McPherson, had been sufficiently incautious to wonder why he was there. He soon had his answer, because O'Brien made Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men look meek and suggestible. He was clearly outraged and when he learnt of the allegations against Heffernan, he "nearly had a seizure".
He insisted that Ivan Denisovichhad run on his merits. After walking the track with Heffernan - something Dettori had not done - O'Brien instructed him to keep the colt away from the poached ground on the inside. Any further deviation from the rail in the middle section of the race was a consequence of Librettist himself leaving Araafa so little room that he was impeded, in turn bumping Ivan Denisovich's hindquarters and causing him to lose balance and rhythm. "We were running a horse that could finish second to George Washington at worst," O'Brien said. "And he's after getting clobbered twice, in my opinion from something Frankie Dettori caused. Either he was paranoid about the Ballydoyle horses or he knew he gave his own horse such a bad ride he wanted a way to cover himself."
Though Heffernan's defence to the stewards on the day may not have been as cogent as it was by the time John Kelsey-Fry, his barrister, had finished with it, excerpts from the transcript seemed to confirm his confusion. After all, he was told at the time that he was being interrogated about a bump on the home bend, for which he was absolved even by the prosecution yesterday.
Perhaps it is Coolmore's consistent success that has goaded the Maktoums into pettiness. And they appear to have allowed Dettori to become a pawn in this foolish game, apparently prohibiting him from riding Ballydoyle horses. It is now two years since Dettori won a Group One prize in Britain for Godolphin, and perhaps it was the way Michael Kinane cruised past on George Washington that truly ignited his fury - rather than anything Heffernan may or may not have done.
NB: The Rocking Dock
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