The catalyst is that of a late 20th century phenomenon, sponsorship. Jockeys wish, like most modern professional sportsmen, to sell bits of their clothing for commercial gain. The British Horseracing Board, which administrates that aspect of the game on behalf of horse owners, wants to maintain a degree of control which the riders regard as untenable.
The confrontation has been bubbling under for nearly a year but is now threatening to become a geyser. The Jockeys' Association, the riders' trade body, holds its annual meeting 12 days hence and weighing-room characters with as high a profile as Richard Dunwoody, John Reid and Tony McCoy have been drawing lines in the sand.
The sticking point is not sponsorship itself. The BHB is entirely committed to the concept and a scheme for allowing advertising space on riders' breeches and boots agreed last October is due to come into effect on 1 November. But under the blanket of the agreement lies the pea; a clause giving owners the power of veto over sponsorship of which they do not approve.
It could be invoked because of a clash of business interests - though of some 17,385 registered owners in Britain only 4,800 have any sort of sponsorship - or because an owner did not want his horse ridden by an equestrian version of a logo-spotted Formula One driver.
But the jockeys feel it will compromise their ability to negotiate deals and regard it as an impossible situation.
So, the threat of militancy is in the air. Michael Caulfield, the Jockeys' Association secretary, would reveal only that there will not be a strike. "We have action planned that will not upset any owner, trainer, punter, racegoer or even journalist but may well embarrass the BHB. And there will be an element of surprise."
Caulfield is mystified by the attitude of the 11-strong Board, which has recently elected as its chairman, Peter Savill, one of the country's most prominent equine proprietors and a former president of the Racehorse Owners' Association.
And, though often placatory in his role as riders' spokesman and mediator, Caulfield, a former stable lad and proud of it, does not mince words on this occasion. "This seems to be vindictive and hypocritical resistance purely on social grounds," he said. "There seems to be some sort of resentment among a minority of directors that jockeys are going to make money from sponsorship. We all know that the top men can already make a very good living from the sport and are set to make more from sponsorship. But what is wrong with that? I'm not jealous of Michael Owen. He seems to be pretty good at his job and deserves every penny he can make.
"But not every professional sportsman has that sort of exceptional talent. And if we can introduce a group scheme for jockeys it will be of most help to the ordinary lads in the lower order; turn a pounds 25,000-a-year jockey into a pounds 27,500-a-year jockey. But this veto clause means that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate a group or individual deal."
No one denies that owners are the linchpins of a sport that can also be a business, not to say an industry, and that many of their recent gripes about racing's funding have a fair foundation. But the days of an owners' autocracy have surely passed and it is difficult not to disagree with the jockeys' arguments for a free market.
Owners are, for the large part, involved in racing as a hobby. The people they employ are professionals, in many cases more highly regarded in their occupation than the owner would be in his or hers. And being a jockey can be a precarious living; it is one of the few where an ambulance follows the participants around as a matter of course.
"In other sports, conflicting sponsors co-exist happily," Caulfield said. "Footballers wear boots made by their shirts' direct competitor. The South African cricketers have Castle Lager on their shirts and play at The Fosters Oval." And even in racing last year when Cape Verdi, with Grosvenor Casinos plastered all over John Reid, won the Stakis Casinos Lowther Stakes the parties involved were adult enough not to give a hoot."
The Jockeys' Association has offered the ROA 10 per cent of any sponsorship deal negotiated if the power of veto is dropped. But that, as far as the BHB is concerned, is not an option. "It was discussed," said the Board's chief executive, Tristram Ricketts, playing a straight bat yesterday, "but the directors expressed no wish to reconsider. It was felt that the owner should have the right to veto sponsorship."
And here lies the impasse: whether the jockey is an employee, and be told what he can or cannot do, before or after he agrees to ride an owner's horse.
"The grand financial plan presented by Peter Savill to cure racing's ills is based on self-help," Caulfield added. "We are trying to help ourselves and are being blocked. And if this is sending the right messages to Government, then I am Michael Owen.
"All we are looking to do is benefit a group of sportsmen who are tolerant, courageous and not overpaid, and who are the ones who become stars and raise the profile of racing, to the benefit of all. But in one fell swoop the BHB - or a tiny minority of it, for I am sure most owners are totally relaxed about what we want - has managed to alienate that group.
"We once had a problem with an insurance scheme. The ROA's attitude was that jockeys were self-employed and should make their own arrangements. Now the attitude seems to be `I employ you and you will do what you are told'. They have shafted us from top to bottom and the jockeys will return the compliment with bouquets."Reuse content