BY GREG WOOD
David Nicholson, the champion National Hunt trainer, was fined £1,500 yesterday after the Jockey Club's Disciplinary Committee decided that he had "used obscene language towards and threatened" Edward Whitaker, a photographer with the Racing Post, at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
The incident occurred shortly after the prestigious King George VI Chase, in which Nicholson's Barton Bank unseated his rider at the last fence with the race at his mercy. Whitaker attempted to photograph Nicholson's consolation of Adrian Maguire, Barton Bank's jockey.
While the Committee said that "the verbal attack and the way in which it was delivered was so severe and threatening as to be violent and improper", it was "not satisfied that Nicholson threw a punch at Mr Whitaker''.
The trainer said after yesterday's hearing that he was "delighted that I was found not to have hit Whitaker. I categorically did not hit him and I expect a few apologies from somewhere." In fact, though, the Committee's verdict was effectively "not proven" rather than "not guilty", and Nicholson may have to do without his apologies.
The fine was the largest for an offence against Rule 220, which covers improper conduct. Jenny Pitman, another leading jumps trainer, was fined £200 in 1990 for striking Jamie Osborne during a race meeting at Ayr, while two years later the same rider was also the victim of a changing- room incident involving Billy Morris, a fellow jockey. Morris, too, was fined £200.
The Committee's verdict yesterday was an unsatisfactory conclusion to what was a most unfortunate incident, not least for the Racing Post. Whitaker is the newspaper's chief photographer, while Nicholson contributes a high- profile column each Saturday. "Relations between the Post and David Nicholson are excellent," Alan Byrne, the paper's editor, said last night. "His column will be appearing on Saturday as normal.''
Nicholson has never been a man to hide his feelings. Despair felt by Barton Bank's supporters when he blundered at the final obstacle, with one of the season's top races apparently won, will have been as nothing compared with that which must have washed over his trainer.
None the less - and regardless of whether or not he landed a punch - the behaviour of which Nicholson was found guilty yesterday was inexcusable. It must be an embarrassment for the sport that Nicholson, at present its most successful trainer, could resort to obscene language and threatening behaviour at a showpiece meeting.
Considerations of seniority and experience often mean that leading jockeys receive stiffer sentences than apprentices for similar riding offences. Given Nicholson's status, a £1,500 fine for his outburst is certainly not punitive. He may also be grateful that the memory of his lapse will be quickly overtaken by next week's Cheltenham Festival at which Barton Bank will start among the favourites for the Gold Cup.
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