Jockey Club's strike inquiry stirs up strife

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Though it has yet to decide when it will be held or even what the charges might be, the Jockey Club yesterday announced a disciplinary inquiry into the strike by 21 jockeys which forced the abandonment of racing at Haydock earlier this month.

The local stewards, it will be recalled, inspected the going before the second race on 16 October and declared it safe. The riders due to take part in the Sycamore Nursery, including Frankie Dettori, Pat Eddery and Walter Swinburn, did not agree, and promptly withdrew their labour.

The decision to hold a disciplinary inquiry, rather than, for instance, a less formal seminar to decide what went wrong, is likely to be one which the Jockey Club took reluctantly. Quite apart from the logistics of getting most or all of the riders concerned to Portman Square when the Flat season on turf has finished, it turns an already tricky situation into an adversarial one, with fingers of blame jabbing in all directions.

"I have no idea when it will be held," David Pipe, the Club's spokesman, said yesterday. "There are a number of details to be tied up and when there are that number of jockeys plus lawyers it is anyone's guess how long it will take. We just want to let everyone know that we have decided to hold an inquiry."

One of the details to be determined is precisely which of the rules of racing the jockeys will be charged with having breached, but the fact that they will be facing charges at all is a deep disappointment for Michael Caulfield, secretary of the Jockeys' Association.

"It is sad that the Jockey Club appear to want to find scapegoats for what is obviously a very serious safety issue," Caulfield said yesterday.

"Regrettably, we will now find ourselves in a position of conflict which can only result in further bitterness. You can take the common sense route, or the `we're going to blame someone' route, and that's the one they've taken."

Caulfield's preference would have been for an inquiry such as the one which followed the abnormal number of equine fatalities at this year's Cheltenham Festival, concerned less with blame and more with preventing any repeat.

"Pointing a few fingers won't serve any purpose," he said. "The common sense approach is to recognise that there was a huge breakdown in communications, and then to ensure that it doesn't happen again. Instead, the whole thing will be turned into a circus, and we have lost an opportunity to address safety, which should be the Jockey Club's first priority."

Certainly, it is only the racing media who will find much to celebrate in yesterday's announcement. Disciplinary hearings rarely generate electrifying copy, but the prospect of almost two dozen taking place and involving such well-known names as Dettori and Eddery, is altogether more appealing. An extra dash of spice is provided by the somewhat patrician response to the events at Haydock by some owners and trainers, who apparently felt that the jockeys were getting above their station and should simply do as they were told.

The days when jockeys tugged their forelocks and mumbled their gratitude to those who employ them are long gone, and some of their number are among the most richly rewarded sportsmen in the world. The majority, however, are far from wealthy, and unlikely to forfeit an afternoon's work without an excellent reason.

While the only thing the Haydock stewards, not to mention the disgruntled owners and trainers, were likely to succumb to on 16 October was a surfeit of gin and tonic, jockeys face serious injury or worse every time they ride a horse. They are only too aware of the line which divides acceptable and unacceptable risks.

To label them either as malingerers or, by implication, miscreants is both unfair and unwise. The Jockey Club, entirely unnecessarily, seems to have started a fight it cannot win.