BHA retreats on whip penalties
Perhaps now, just in time, the poisoned atmosphere between jockeys and regulators may begin to dissipate. Having already made one lavish admission of misjudgement, the British Horseracing Authority yesterday announced another series of amendments to the draconian new whip regulations introduced with such fanfare barely a month ago. On the eve of the biggest meeting of the jumps season so far, the regulators were plainly hoping to douse the blaze of controversy that has so blackened the sport – even as they sought to broadcast its noblest priorities to the world at large.
Approaching the next three afternoons at Cheltenham, jockeys as seasoned as Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy found themselves threatened with an automatic 10-day ban for even the most marginal transgression under the new whip rules, as a result of a solitary, borderline, failure to transform overnight the habits and skills that have elevated them among the all-time greats.
Now, however, the gravest of their outstanding grievances has been redressed. Borderline offences will henceforth be dealt with more proportionately, with an automatic five-day suspension for one slap beyond the new limit of seven on the Flat, and eight over jumps, reduced to two days. Moreover marginal breaches will no longer cause jockeys to miss Group or Grade One races. Both Walsh and McCoy were among those seasoned and responsible riders to have miscalculated where they stood in relation to the letter of the new law, and local stewards will be relieved that they are now to have case-by-case discretion. Enforced with strict liability, even a steering tap with the hands on the reins had hitherto been treated as an all-out "strike".
These latest revisions compound a first climbdown three weeks ago. That was triggered when Christophe Soumillon briefly forfeited more than £50,000 for a highly polished ride in the Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot.
All in all, the BHA has implicitly acknowledged that the whole business has been grossly mishandled. In fairness, however, jockeys have meanwhile been obliged to demonstrate that races can often be won and lost in more aesthetically pleasing fashion within the new rules – and tough penalties have been retained for those who flagrantly disregard them. For instance, a jockey who exceeds the limit by three will still forfeit his prize-money, and serve a seven-day ban.
"Jockeys are making a real and conscious effort to ride within the new rules," the BHA noted in a statement. "Breaches for improper use have fallen by 46 per cent when compared with the same period last year. While there has been an increase in offences for use of the whip with excessive frequency, the overwhelming majority of [cases have been] one and two uses over the new limits. Furthermore, offences for interference and careless riding have decreased by 56 per cent compared to the same period in 2010, all of which provides evidence of the behavioural change which was a key objective."
The Professional Jockeys' Association welcomed yesterday's amendments only as "a step in the right direction", but promised continued engagement in the consultations that have slowly defused the crisis.
The one guarantee is that those bystanders whose curiosity has been exhausted by the saga will be gratified that due attention may now be reserved for horses like Cue Card and Grands Crus. To that extent, it seems even more lamentable that their showdown today should elude terrestrial television coverage.
Grands Crus has evidently schooled well in search of sanctuary from Big Buck's, having beaten all bar the remorseless champion over hurdles last spring, while Cue Card made an impeccable start over fences at Chepstow last month, thrashing two subsequent winners.
Not that this is a mere match, with Champion Court among those with the ability to assert a new pecking order in a new discipline. Let us just hope that these horses are not alone in making a fresh start today.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Crack Away Jack (1.45 Cheltenham) Fourth in a Champion Hurdle in his youth and, having lost his way somewhat since switching to fences, looks potentially well treated on his first start for the champion trainer.
Garde Champetre (2.20 Cheltenham) Getting on now but remains so proficient over this exotic track that he demands loyalty, not least on such favourable terms, after a pipe-opener over hurdles at Punchestown last month.
One to watch
Mass Rally (Michael Dods) suggested he can contribute to his stable's revival when finishing best out of midfield at Doncaster on Saturday, and is proven on the all-weather.
Where the money's going
Somersby is 14-1 from 20-1 with Paddy Power for the William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
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