Racing: Whip dispute hangs over trials

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'IT AMAZES me how well the majority of jump jockeys ride in a race until they've landed over the last, then how badly most of them ride a finish,' Jack Leach wrote 20 years ago in his book, A Rider on the Stand. 'Apart from a half-dozen, they look like coster boys sitting on top of donkeys' behinds, bashing about with shillelaghs.'

It was a hard verdict, but then these too are contentious times in the realm of horse riding because the Jockey Club is considering reducing the number of strokes of the whip which will provoke a stewards' inquiry from 10 to six. The jockeys are apoplectic. The trainers are divided. The horses, of course, are simply oblivious, though soon, perhaps, to be a little less sore in the mornings.

After this year the Cheltenham Festival could be unrecognisable, and that thought will supersede most others when jump racing's home town stages a series of important championship trials in muddy ground this afternoon. Nowhere are riders more inclined to excess than at jumping's premier congress in March, and the issue is sure to be hotly debated at Cheltenham today, when, coincidentally, the champion jockey, Peter Scudamore, will be absent because of the four-day suspension for misuse of the whip he incurred at Taunton last week.

If Leach believed there was a non-dirty half-dozen identifiable in his time by their ability to exercise restraint in a finish, then in the modern era Scudamore would definitely earn a place in the team. In fact there are many more than six jump jockeys who have modified their styles in deference to the tighter regulations, but at the same time there are still too many 'carpet beaters' who risk knocking themselves off the horse with the force of their blows.

It is this unreconstructed minority who are doing most to hasten reform, along with a cabal on the Jockey Club's Disciplinary Committee which believes that racing's public image is being impaired by the spectacle of tired horses being whacked.

The age of the whip-less jockey is still a long way off, mark you (if you will forgive the pun), because the committee does say it believes that sticks are essential for 'safety and correction', as well as to provide 'encouragement'. However, raising 'the bat', as it is sometimes gruesomely known, above shoulder level will also court punishment.

Among the least hard pressed of today's runners should almost certainly be Richard Dunwoody's big three, Mighty Mogul, Another Coral and Kadi. Dunwoody has been one of the most consistent critics of the new whip regulations, but in private, at least, he should be grateful this weekend that Scudamore has fallen foul of the law. Dunwoody's surge to the head of the jockeys' championship in the first half of the season is faltering, and he needs to regain the initiative while Scudamore is catching up on the ironing.

Oddly enough, Mighty Mogul has never run round Cheltenham, so his mission today against just three opponents in the Wyko Hurdle is to memorise the route he will take in the Champion Hurdle back here in March. It was gracious of so many of David Nicholson's rivals not to hinder this learning process by entering opponents.

A stiffer test awaits Nicholson's Another Coral in the Hall of Fame Chase. This horse has been touted as a live outsider for the Gold Cup by Nicholson, and he will need to be if he is to beat two former Gold Cup winners (Cool Ground and Garrison Savannah) and the horse who captured last year's Grand National, Party Politics. Chuck in Martin Pipe's Miinnehoma and the Hennessy winner, Sibton Abbey, and you have by some distance the race of the day.

Trials abound, from Cheltenham north to Doncaster and Ayr, and west to Leopardstown tomorrow, where Halkopous will set off a warm favourite for the Irish Champion Hurdle. Vintage Crop, Novello Allegro and Crowded House (Dunwoody's mount) provide stiff local resistance, though Halkopous, like Mighty Mogul, is impossible to resist until he is conquered.

Such is our Cheltenham-obsessed yearning in January and February for Festival clues that meetings as far from Gloucestershire as Doncaster and Ayr are relegated to the role of rehearsals for the larger rituals to come.

Thus it is that we will be studying Candy Tuff, Whispering Steel and Dominant Serenade, three of the north's most promising performers, in the West of Scotland Chase and Scottish Novice Hurdle respectively at Ayr. Ditto, at Doncaster, Pipe's Lord Relic in the River Don Novice Hurdle, Young Snugfit and Uncle Ernie in the two-mile chase, and Danny Harrold in the Great Yorkshire Chase.

That one's former trainer, the now silent Jenny Pitman, should be fighting back the words after her Ryde Again wins the fifth at Cheltenham.