Racing: Sheepskin 'blinkers' a puzzle for punters

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The Independent Online

The Jockey Club is keeping a "watching brief" on the overnight declaration of sheepskin cheek pieces, their public relations director, John Maxse, said yesterday.

The cheek pieces consist of strips of sheepskin attached to each side of a horse's bridle and the Jockey Club are concerned that some trainers are increasingly using them in place of blinkers, hoods and visors which have had to be declared over-night on racecards since the mid-1970s. That information is then passed on to every daily newspaper, but at present only on-course punters are aware when a horse is equipped with sheepskin cheek pieces.

Inevitably finance is proving a hindrance, as Maxse explained: "The decision whether to require trainers to declare sheepskin cheek pieces has put us in something of a quandary and we are not totally committed to its introduction. It has been put on the backburner as we would have to justify the additional computer cost [believed to be around £8,000] for what may be a little bit of a fad."

However, many racecourse regulars are convinced that the cheek pieces can sharpen up a "doggy" or unreliable horse and for some months now professional punter Eddie "The Shoe" Fremantle has been campaigning for their over-night declaration in his weekly diary in the Sports Adviser.

But Maxse, who has had considerable experience as an amateur rider, added: "About three years ago they were banned in Ireland as I think they didn't want the bother of having yet another piece of tack to declare, but we don't want to prevent trainers using them here if they want to. I've never ridden a horse that's run in cheek pieces, but I'm a little sceptical about whether they make much difference."

Sheepskin cheek pieces were first employed on a British racecourse, in contemporary times at least, by the Leominster trainer Frank Jordan on Chief Mouse at Bangor in September, 1998. Described by his trainer as "an old monkey", Chief Mouse won by a head – his first success for 18 months.

Recalling that day Jordan said: "When we tried Chief Mouse in ordinary blinkers he didn't do a tap, but he worked like a dream in the cheek pieces. When his owner walked into the paddock he turned to me saying: 'What the hell are those things? Take them off'. But I told him, 'Just watch what he does in them'. I got the idea after watching a video I was sent from New Zealand which showed horses wearing them. They are just sheepskin nosebands fixed on to the bridle. With blinkers the horse can only see what's in front, but with the cheek pieces he can see each side of him, but not behind.

"On the all-weather the kickback doesn't get caught in them like it does in the cups of blinkers. After a while we started to call them the 'McCriricks' [after the sideburned Channel 4 betting pundit] – and they certainly work."

Pam Sly, who trains near Peterborough, also shares Jordan's enthusiasm and her chaser I've No Say has won twice since being fitted with them. Mrs Sly commented: "They are less severe than blinkers and are useful on a horse who has lost his edge. I can see no problem with declaring them."

Not everyone is convinced, including Philip Hobbs, currently second in the jumps trainers' championship. Hobbs said: "I've only used them once and think they can make only a slight difference. I don't think it's necessary to declare them, but if it helps the punter then maybe they should be."

Ian Williams, a Midlands-based trainer, is equally dubious. "I used them once when we forgot to declare blinkers, but I don't think they are as effective and I never saw them in France when I worked for François Doumen," he said.

Some may say cheek pieces are pulling the wool over punters' eyes, but declaring them seems unlikely to make sorting out the sheep from the goats any easier.