At Ludlow yesterday it was not so much Mr Buttons having to look behind as pay attention in front. Racing's early embracement of the panto season continued when, for the second time this week, a race degenerated into farce as a clutch of jockeys took the wrong course. After the opening selling hurdle, seven of the 14 runners were disqualified, including the second, third and fourth home, and their riders banned for 19 days each.
The fiasco began in what could have proved serious circumstances. Claimer Claire Stretton took a horrible fall at the first flight and the obstacle, the first of three in the home straight, was dolled off when it should have been the third last next time, as the stricken girl received medical attention.
Off the final bend at the right-handed Shropshire track, the chase course hugs the infield rail. Runners in hurdle races are required to swing wider and leave a running rail that guides them to the hurdles course on their right. As the remaining field in yesterday's contest came back towards the stands, the clear leaders Diamond Orchid and Seraph charged round the home turn on the chase course and stayed there, towing Golden Fields in their wake.
As that trio headed down the obviously wrong course, with the fluorescent-jacketed paramedics in their path on the chase track, to the right of the hurdle where Stretton had been thrown, opinion behind them became divided as to where to go.
Three horses - first-past-the-post Dream Falcon and trailers La Rose and Margaret's Wish - swung onto the hurdles track and correctly bypassed the obstacle to its left, as the instructions posted in the weighing room and the black-and-white chevrons on the hurdle itself indicated. Four others - Triumph of Dubai, Blue Savanna, Craigmor and Sigwells Club Boy - swung onto the hurdles track and then veered right-handed through a gap in the running rail back onto the chase track, once again imperilling the medical staff.
Dream Falcon ridden by the experienced Rodi Greene, was the winner on merit, staying on well to come home in front of Diamond Orchid, Triumph of Dubai and Golden Fields. Inevitably, the last three-named were thrown out, with La Rose and Margaret's Wish, ridden by another pair of seasoned seniors, Robert Thornton and Carl Llewellyn respectively, promoted to the placings as the only other official finishers.
The seven riders punished were Marcus Foley (Triumph of Dubai), Timmy Murphy (Blue Savanna), Mark Nicolls (Craigmor), James Davies (Seraph), Paddy Brennan (Sigwells Club Boy), Antony Evans (Diamond Orchid) and Gabriel Hannon (Golden Fields). All bar Foley and Murphy are conditional jockeys of varying degrees of experience.
Their disqualifications were levied under the rule which covers negligence, 12 days for taking the wrong course and an additional seven for failing to pull up after having done so. The bans start on 29 December, 11 days after the offence under a new ruling which kicked in yesterday. Had the time-lapse been the old nine days, Murphy would have missed his plum ride on Beef Or Salmon at Leopardstown on 28 December.
Happily, Stretton regained consciousness before she was taken from the course by ambulance, although she was kept in hospital overnight.
This latest bungle follows four days after an incident at Towcester, in which the first five finishers in an amateur riders' chase were disqualified after their riders went the wrong side of an isolated wing.
John Maxse, director of public relations for the Jockey Club, commented: "It is very disappointing and frustrating that this unfortunate incident has occurred. The fact that the jockeys were all given 19-day suspensions demonstrates how the Ludlow stewards concluded that there were not the mitigating circumstances (low sun), which enabled the amateurs involved in taking the wrong course at Towcester to escape a ban.
"The map in the weighing room was correctly marked and clearly showed that the hurdles in the home straight should be bypassed on the left - the stands' side. The procedures for bypassing a fence were also correctly carried out by the Ludlow officials. Three senior riders were in no doubt about what course to take."
While gambling is by definition risky, punters may feel they have a right to a certain degree of professionalism. The display by the Ludlow seven begs the question that if an electrician (say) employed to do a job evinced a similar level of incompetence, would he be paid?