Racing: No room for saddle sainthood

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The Independent Online
THE two-day suspension imposed on Adrian Maguire and Declan Murphy after a thrilling tussle for first place in the King George VI steeplechase at Kempton Park on Monday moves each according to his or her nature.

Doubtless, the habitually hysterical thought it appropriate when Maguire and Murphy were ordered to take a short holiday on the basis that their mounts, Barton Bank and Bradbury Star, two noble warriors of the turf, had been given more encouragement than is deemed good for them.

A point of view resolutely held here, and shared, I'm sure, by the vast majority who go racing or watch on television, is that the stewards at Kempton, if admittedly conforming to guidelines laid down by the Jockey Club, could themselves be called to account for excessive use of the rule book.

In other words, the whip rule that technically restricts a jockey to five forceful reminders during the entire course of a race, is absurd. Not only is it difficult to implement accurately but pays no account to the excitement that naturally comes to the fore when jockeys find themselves well- placed in a driving finish.

To state, as the stewards did, that Maguire and Murphy, who has appealed, should have applied more restraint, leaving enough time between smacks to determine how their mounts were reacting, suggests that sainthood in the saddle is now a standard requirement.

I am no expert in these matters, but to me jumps racing is a dangerous and thrilling activity, one of the most uncomplicated of sporting competitions. It is not, as the suspensions will imply to people who have no interest in racing, a cruel pursuit that should have no place in a civilized society.

Of course, every effort should be made to ensure that horses are not abused, but from a good vantage point on Monday it did not appear that Maguire and Murphy were guilty of a serious infringement when energetically going for the line. 'This was not a seller or a claimer, it was the King George,' Maguire said, adding philosophically, 'but the stewards have their job to do and I accept their verdict.'

A lingering thought is what reaction would have resulted from either jockey dropping his hands with the prize still at stake.

They are wrong, those who think that racing can be ordered not to cause offence. It is bound to do so whenever a horse tumbles grotesquely. The fact that television is always eager to show that a faller has regained its feet without serious injury reveals an understandable awareness of the non-racing public's sensitivity.

As to the issue of whipping, an acquaintance who is much respected in racing circles makes the point that while human athletes push themselves through pain in order to succeed, horses sometimes need a lot of persuading. The difference is that humans have a choice.

Because there are people in racing who remain vehemently opposed to aggressive urgings, the issue will not be resolved easily.

Two years ago, Maguire who at 22 is proving to be one of the great talents, with more than a century of winners this season, was stood down after excitingly driving Cool Ground to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of his contribution when bringing Barton Bank through to win the King George. Maguire was the binder, the adhesive element that kept the challenge together.

The widespread conclusion was that a brilliant horseman had got the best out of a tough and willing chaser when coming under great pressure from Murphy with one fence left to jump. Nobody in the audience appeared to find this shameful.

Recently I came across a trainer who deplores changes that have been made to the Grand National course at Aintree, especially the previously fearsome Becher's Brook. 'In response to protests, they have more or less ruined the race,' he said. 'It grieves when a horse has to be put down but what sort of racing do we want?'

Bearing the previous sentence in mind it strikes me that the rule Maguire and Murphy fell foul of on Monday is one worth taking risks with.