Racing: McCoy sent back to school

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The Independent Online
DURING THE last few years of his formal education, Tony McCoy was a persistent truant, more interested in riding out horses at a local racing stable than he was in listening to teachers. A different attitude will be required some time in the next couple of weeks, though, thanks to an unexpected ruling by the Jockey Club's Disciplinary Committee yesterday evening. As well as banning McCoy for 18 days, four of which are suspended, for a series of whip offences stretching back to 4 April, the committee decided that it would be a good idea for the champion National Hunt jockey, reckoned by many to be the finest the sport has seen, to go back to riding school.

Imagine Tony Adams being ordered to spend a day training with Arsenal Schoolboys to brush up on his tackling and you have a rough idea of what McCoy is being asked to do. At some point during his suspension, which starts on Thursday and ends a fortnight on Saturday, he will attend the British Racing School at Newmarket, where raw apprentices are taught the basics of race-riding. There, McCoy will ride a mechanical horse while his style and whip action are filmed. He will then study the film in the company of a senior instructor, who will discuss with McCoy how he can ensure that he uses his whip in accordance with the Jockey Club's rules.

"He clearly needs some assistance if he is going to ride within the guidelines," Malcolm Wallace, the Club's director of regulation, said after yesterday's hearing at Portman Square. "By and large, he's ridden the vast majority of his winners within the rules, but the problem is his enthusiasm to win. He hits his horses too hard, and there is a culture within our jockeys that horses have to be hit hard and frequently to win races. We're trying to change that culture."

Wallace compared the concept to that of a top sportsman in another field who listens to the advice of his coach. Some punters, though, would argue that two successive riding championships are persuasive evidence that McCoy is doing perfectly well on his own. To members of this school of thought, yesterday's hearing was an attempt by the racing authorities to punish McCoy for no greater crime than trying harder than anyone else.

He himself said at Cheltenham this weekend that the whip offence which triggered his visit to Portman Square yesterday - when riding Bamapour to victory in a claiming hurdle at Fontwell last week - was the result of him "trying to win a little, little race", and that he did not think he had done anything wrong. Another couple of days' reflection seemed to change his mind, though, for no sooner had he sat himself in front of the Disciplinary Committee yesterday than he admitted to whipping Bamapour with "excessive frequency" after the last flight at Fontwell.

This made what had promised to be a very difficult job for the stewards much easier, a fact which may have been reflected in the relatively light sentence he subsequently received. Other jockeys have been banned for up to 30 days in similar circumstances. None the less, McCoy will be unavailable for this weekend's big meetings at Ascot and Aintree, and more significantly still, the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury a week later, in which he would have partnered one of the favourites, Cyfor Malta.

McCoy said little as he left Portman Square yesterday evening, though he did remark of his day-trip to the Racing School that "if it helps and keeps me from being suspended, I'm willing to do it." His teeth were not exactly gritted as he said it, but neither was he smiling. When he added that "hopefully, this will be the last time you'll see me at Portman Square for a while," on the other hand, he did so with feeling.

As he wandered off into central London, it marked a satisfactory end to what had seemed sure to be a damaging day for the Jockey Club. The authorities' problem is that they are trying to reconcile opinions on what exactly constitutes misuse of the whip which are beyond reconciliation.

Many of the punters in an average betting shop care little for how often or hard a horse is hit so long as it wins. More casual observers, though, are appalled that jockeys should feel able - indeed, obliged - to inflict pain on horses which have already raced and jumped for two miles or more and are approaching exhaustion.

In the circumstances, the rules as they stand are as reasonable as any we are likely to get, and while McCoy has had trouble adjusting his riding style to fit them, other leading riders have not.

Rather than trying too hard on the track, McCoy perhaps needs to try harder to understand what is required before he gets on a horse. If that is the outcome of yesterday's hearing, it will have been a good day's work for all concerned.