Racing: Inquiry into National fiasco finds a flag of convenience: The Jockey Club's official investigation into the chaos at Aintree focusses most of the blame on a part-time employee. Greg Wood reports

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The Independent Online
THE BELIEF that authority implies responsibility took another blow to the head yesterday when the Jockey Club's Committee of Inquiry into the Grand National debacle published its findings. Nowadays, it seems, blame sinks - and fast.

Thus the role of principal villain is handed not to the Jockey Club, the Aintree management or the starter, Keith Brown, but to Ken Evans, who was paid pounds 28 a day to risk his neck with the recall flag. His alleged failure to raise his flag and alert the runners to a second false start was seen as a crucial error in the sequence of events which resulted in the race being declared void.

None of the principal players escape criticism in the report by Sir Michael Connell, the chairman and a High Court judge, Len Cowburn, the former deputy chairman of William Hill, and the trainer and former jockey, Stan Mellor. But only Evans's evidence is dismissed as untrue.

'Liar' is, as Justice Connell was quick to point out yesterday, a word with unfortunate and sometimes unwarranted overtones (and also, as he would be only too aware, potentially actionable). Yet the report is unequivocal: 'Despite his assertions to the contrary, we conclude that Mr Evans did not wave his recall flag on either false start.'

The real shame is that even if Evans did not carry out his job properly - and he still insists that he did - he was but one, and one of the lowliest, of many who failed in their duties.

The events of 3 April might appear to be the ultimate proof of Murphy's Law. Everything that could go wrong, did - suddenly, and apparently unpredictably. But the report makes it clear that much could have been done to avert the disaster.

Beneath the confusion, there are two distinct questions. Firstly, why was there a false start at all? Only when that has been answered does Evans come under scrutiny, as we consider why, once the false start had occurred, did the recall system fail?

The starting gate at Aintree, which is known as a 'grey gate', is operated by a handle which releases a tape stretching the full width of the course. The same system is used at six other British courses, but nowhere does the tape stretch for 60 metres, as it does at Liverpool.

Little surprise, then, that the committee declared the starting gate to be 'outdated'. But it also discovered that the system's efficiency had hardly been improving with age, and that its problem potential had already been identified.

From 1991, 'a man was stationed on each side of the course to operate a pulley designed to assist the tape to rise.' To add to the air of genteel decay, 'in 1990 a man had to be employed just to hold the catch secure on the gate-post on the outside of the course, in case it slipped off.' And this is supposed to be the greatest steeplechase in the world.

On 18 February 1993, Rod Fabricius, Aintree's acting clerk of the course, made a note during a planning meeting. 'Consideration to be given to doing away with the grey gate start after 1993 meeting. RNF (Fabricius) to chat to Keith Brown on subject.'

Chat they did, on 22 February, but when an alternative system was suggested, Brown cited a Jockey Club instruction which appeared to preclude it. Although the Club-approved grey gate was rigorously tested, the report concludes that given 'the inherent defect in the sagging tape with its slower rise in the middle, all that the test showed was that the gate operated as satisfactorily as it could.' The first professional errors had been committed, and the foundations of the fiasco were in place.

Now jump forward to 3 April, 3.50pm. According to the report, 'the circumstances surrounding the start . . . including the early arrival of the horses, delay caused by saboteurs, extra tension on horses and riders and adverse weather conditions and noise, undoubtedly made the starter's task much more difficult than usual.' The impact of the animal rights demonstrators is considered minimal, but it did nothing to soothe the nervous energy as 39 jockeys lined up their mounts, inches from the tape.

'The horses lined up too close to the starting tape and should have been prevented from doing so, or should have been ordered back by the starter,' the report concludes. Another professional error.

And only now, after two false starts which could have been avoided, do we get to Ken Evans, 100 yards from the start with only a red flag for company, expecting to scurry into anonymity.

Did he wave it? The committee justifies its disbelief thus: 'he was primarily concerned to leave the course as soon as possible because of the proximity of his selected position to the start,' while 'on the second occasion he assumed the jockeys would have known that a false start had been declared because the horses . . . were inconvenienced by the broken tape.'

If he was concerned for his safety, no wonder. The report estimates the horses would have reached him in less than 20 strides (about 12 seconds); the smallest slip on his run to the rail, and he would have been in no shape to give evidence at all. Evans, though, was the last credible line of defence, and once the field had passed him, the race was already as good as void.

But if Evans was too close, the blame is not his, but the starter's. Under the Rules of Racing, all aspects of the starting procedure are ultimately his responsibility. The report does not make this clear. Nor does it suggest how any repetition can be avoided - that is up to Andrew Parker Bowles's Working Party, expected to report in August. The committee's brief was only 'to determine precisely what occured relating to the Grand National of 1993'. But while they may not have intended to pin blame on any individual, they were naive if they thought that their specific criticism of Evans would not be taken as such.

The trainers and jockeys whose work was wasted deserved better. So did the punters whose enjoyment was ruined. So, certainly, did Ken Evans.

Everyone else deserved much worse.

(Photograph omitted)

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