Racing: Jockeys fighting owners for trouser power

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THERE WILL be two important meetings at York today, the one at which horses will race for a share of pounds 700,000 in prize money, and another, on the opposite side of the Knavesmire, which could determine the distribution of many times as much. The action which you can bet on starts at 2.05, but for connoisseurs of administration as high farce - something which racing is rather good at - the Swallow Hotel at 11.00 is the place to be, as Britain's jockeys gather to discuss the vexed question of their trousers.

At issue is the riders' wish to sell advertising space on their breeches, which could generate seven-figure sums annually and would be, you might think, a prime example of the "self-help" which Peter Savill, the BHB chairman, is keen to encourage. Many owners are paid to carry sponsorship on their silks, and since the jockeys supply their own trousers, it seems reasonable to think that if they want to turn them into billboards, that's up to them.

Not, however, according to a vocal group of owners - among them Savill - who insist they should have a right of veto over any logos a jockey might wish to carry when riding their horses. Clearly, any rider seeking sponsorship on the basis that it will appear unless the Hon Algernon Fitztrumpington objects is not going to find many takers. But then, that is probably the idea.

In response, the jockeys have issued veiled threats that they will simply do as they please, a confrontational tactic which would place them all in breach of the Rules of Racing. Today's meeting could either opt for a compromise, or vote for a more militant approach. Whatever their choice, though, the argument has been a PR disaster for the BHB, exposing the primeval attitudes which still lurk beneath the surface of what likes to think of itself as a forward-thinking industry.

The dispute is about power and class, and a view of employees as chattels which comes from the days of landowners and tenant farmers. The men and women who risk life and limb every day for our entertainment should apparently be grateful they have a job at all. To want more is greedy and disrespectful.

The owners protest their horses might end up advertising anything without their say so (condoms was one example), which is an insult to the intelligence (not to mention the good taste) of the jockeys. Anyway, in an era when Ascot, of all places, can stage the Rennie Deflatine Handicap, as it did recently, little is sacred.

Others claim the jockeys' logos might clash with their own (Mates on the silks, perhaps, and Durex on the breeches). Again, this is a smokescreen. Liverpool advertise Carlsberg while playing in the Carling Premiership.

The most telling quote in the whole sorry affair came from Gerald Leigh, an owner in the Savill camp, who said he wanted to be sure that his runners were "totally representative of Gerald Leigh".

In that case, perhaps they should all wear blinkers.