McCloy controversy overshadows forum

Greg Wood on a day of discomfort for one of racing's senior administrat ors
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Many thousands of words were spoken at yesterday's British Horseracing Board Industry Committee Forum, about how the sport has coped with its problems in the last year and how it is facing up to those which lie ahead. The words which seemed to matter, though, were those which went unsaid.

Matthew McCloy, the chairman of the Industry Committee and thus, as one member of the audience put it, "the No.2 man in racing", ignored questions from the floor about his conduct on a recent trip to America for the Breeders' Cup, annoying both his critics and those BHB managers who could see a carefully planned seminar all but going to waste.

Statements of intent regarding prize-money, the Tote, the fixture list and new technology were forgotten as first Guy Harwood, of the National Trainers' Federation, and then David Gibson, of the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, sought to pin down McCloy about his behaviour during and after an American Airlines flight to New York. McCloy simply declared that it was time for lunch, and despite a cry of "answer" from the trainers' leader, Peter Cundell, the chairman's view prevailed.

Later, in a statement apologising "for any embarrassment that Racing may have suffered", McCloy acknowledged that the sport has a legitimate interest in what occurred in America, but that he had taken the view that it was a matter for his colleagues on the Committee. He also explained that "many of the facts of the incident are still in dispute and these are being considered by my lawyers".

Many of the facts surrounding McCloy's trip to Belmont Park are in dispute, but it is clear that he consumed alcohol on the flight and was subsequently handcuffed because the pilot believed he posed a threat to the plane. Following a 48-hour imprisonment, he pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct - described by his lawyer as "similar to a parking ticket" - in order, McCloy said, to "secure my immediate return" to Britain.

McCloy turned up at Belmont with a bruised face and told reporters that his imprisonment was a result of being mistaken for a Jamaican gangster of the same name, but US immigration officials denied this.

In the eyes of racing's more traditional wing - and to be frank, what other wing is there? - McCloy needs to clear the air. He told reporters later that yesterday's forum, held in London, was "neither the time nor the place" to protest his innocence since it would take far too long, but he would happily explain his position to anyone who cared to telephone him.

Since his constituency was arrayed in front of him yesterday, however, a short statement at the start of proceedings - pointing out, if nothing else, that he seems to have been the victim of over-reaction by the airline concerned - might have defused the situation and allowed the real business of the forum to continue uninterrupted.

Now, attention will turn to a forthcoming election for an Industry Committee representative on the BHB Board, which McCloy had been expected to win without opposition. The Committee represents a diverse but significant collection of interests, from vets and auctioneers to trainers, owners and stable lads. The breeders' and trainers' representatives seem to take a particularly dim view of the incident, and may now field a candidate against McCloy. Defeat would be a savage blow for the committee chairman, who is barely six months into his four-year appointment.

What the BHB would have much preferred the audience to focus on was a series of briefings on the state of the game. The good news included a rise in ownership, continuing success for the owners' sponsorship initiative and a serious commitment to work in tandem with the betting industry to the maximum benefit of both sides. Principal concerns are the continuing effect of the lottery on betting turnover, the announcement by the Levy Board on Wednesday night of a pounds 5m cut in expenditure, and the ongoing delay in the BHB's stated aim of acquiring control of the Tote.

Technology also seems likely to play an increasing role on the turf, including a new electronic imaging system to reduce the decision-time after a photo-finish. Many punters will regret its introduction if it removes the chance to bet on photo-finishes, though environmentalists will be delighted since the chemicals currently used in developing prints are so toxic that they may soon be illegal.

It is also hoped that trainers will be "on-line" in the near future, allowing the BHB and Weatherby's, racing's day-to-day administrators, to carry out many tasks electronically which currently require post, fax or phone. Declarations, entries, jockey bookings and handicap ratings are among many tasks which may soon be performed electronically. The scheme also, of course, summons images of crusty old trainers attempting to join the computer age when they have only just learned how to change a light bulb.