Racing: Jockeys threaten to continue boycott

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The Independent Online

The fact was steeped in irony, given the nature of the dispute that had the well-known names refusing to ride at the West Midlands track. In the wake of a decision by the company that runs Wolverhampton, Arena Leisure, to recruit its own team of stalls handlers, jockeys, as a body, are currently concerned about safety standards at the start. As a result of the senior men's action, the inexperience yesterday evening was in the saddle, not on the ground.

The first race, happily, passed off without incident. All 11 runners loaded calmly and jumped from the stalls without fuss. The race, a six-furlong claimer, went to the odds-on favourite Outlook, ridden by the one star name on duty, Seb Sanders. The title-chasing rider rode only because his contract with the two-year-old's trainer Sir Mark Prescott precluded him from doing otherwise, but Sanders accepted no outside mounts at the meeting.

The apprentices were in the same no-option boat. "If it had been up to me, I wouldn't have been riding," said 5lb claimer Ben Swarbrick, attached to Mark Brisbourne's yard. "But as an apprentice I have to do as I am told and I had to ride the boss's horses."

Arena Leisure recently announced its decision, based on cutting costs, to dispense with the services of the established stalls handlers, employed by RaceTech and deployed countrywide, and put together its own in-house team. Given that Arena's tracks, which include the two other all-weather venues, Southwell and Lingfield, possess 35 per cent of the fixture list, redundancies in RaceTech's ranks are inevitable.

Interwoven with the RaceTech men's long-term prospects are safety issues. The start of a race can be a high-risk area for man and beast and the experience of handlers is at a premium. Jockeys and trainers are already concerned about the introduction this season of a new style of starting stall and overlaying that with what they see as relatively inexperienced handlers has caused red lights to flash.

Wolverhampton last night was the first time the new stalls team, which has had several dummy runs and has been passed as competent by the Jockey Club, operated for real. The big-name riders were in action last night at Windsor, which is also owned by Arena Leisure but is still serviced by the RaceTech teams.

The jockeys' gesture in snubbing Wolverhampton was to make clear their concerns on two fronts, safety and solidarity, but, perhaps inevitably in today's workplace, it will be only whistling in the wind.

The two sides in the dispute have been talking, but the jockeys' action can be no more than an attention-drawing gesture, for Arena Leisure's commitment to their own operation is a fait accompli. Last night was the shape of the business's future, at its three all-weather tracks this winter and into next summer on its turf courses. "We are going ahead with our own team," said the firm's racing director, Ian Renton. "They are capable and professional. Of the 18, all bar one have previous experience as stalls handlers and all also work in stables. Once the team is bedded in, I hope that the jockeys' fears will be allayed."

Richard Edmondson

Nap: Master Tern (Worcester 7.30)

NB: Think Quick (Perth 5.30)