Chris McGrath: Authorities must uphold spirit of new whip rules
As climbdowns go, it is right up there with Edward Norton on Everest in 1924.
And racing, as it strives to bring the whip debate back under control, could certainly profit from the character and leadership of Norton. The great man might well testify that the way up often proves a good deal less perilous than the descent.
The latest revision to the rules, announced this week, potentially restores jockeys to their use of the whip before radical changes introduced in October. All the intervening heartache, all the negative publicity, would itself amount to an ample rebuke to those who might now seem to have taken the sport on an odyssey as hazardous as it was pointless. It would be naïve, however, to imagine that the extent of the damage can now be circumscribed. In fact, the route back to base camp not only forfeits the uncharted panoramas above – which might have justified the culture shock of recent months – but exposes the sport to an abyss.
Certainly, the RSPCA's intemperate response to the British Horseracing Authority's final retreat offers a frightening measure of the drop. A press release on the day spoke of "a black day" for racing, even of jockeys being allowed to "beat horses with impunity". As ever, a better assessment was subsequently made by its equine consultant, David Muir. Nonetheless, he warned that successive amendments to the rules meant that it was "quickly becoming difficult" for the RSPCA to continue its support.
Muir has long served as a priceless fulcrum between the extremes of the welfare debate, both of which can stray into irresponsibility and ignorance. It is vital, then, that regulators and jockeys alike do not gaily abandon the improved aesthetic profile of race finishes since October.
The BHA's new chief executive, Paul Bittar, was in such a hurry to abandon "fundamentally flawed" rules before the Cheltenham Festival that nobody yet knows how the new ones are supposed to be applied. For now, those officials who will be presiding at Cheltenham a fortnight on Tuesday know only that a jockey who uses his whip more than eight times (seven on the Flat) will trigger an overall review of his ride, where he would previously have received an automatic ban.
By vesting so much in the discretion of stewards, the BHA nearly guarantees complaints about inconsistency. The guidelines being compiled must, therefore, confine discretion, unmistakably, to the very margins of a regime most jockeys have embraced, however reluctantly, to commendable effect.
The sport must not be disingenuous. Riders have to be made aware that ninth or 10th slaps, in a close finish to a big race, will not suddenly be tolerated because the stakes happen to be higher. Use of "common sense" by stewards must not mean a judicious blind eye to flagrant disregard of rules, in high-profile situations. It should simply mean that jockeys who have been caught out by the strict letter of the law – as has very occasionally been the case through the correction of wayward horses, sooner in the interests of safety than momentum – might now be exonerated.
That way, it might still be possible to satisfy Muir, and others striving to ensure that the debate is an educated one, that jockeys will still be punished for administering extra slaps merely in the hope of encouraging a tired horse. The temptation to do so in big races, in particular, could perhaps be addressed by centralised regulation of the whip at elite meetings. This would not only absolve unpaid stewards of a thankless task, but also diminish inconsistency.
Some stewards have clearly felt embarrassed by an obligation of zero tolerance; some riders, likewise, have paid a disproportionate price for what might be celebrated as perfectly responsible horsemanship. Both camps are also aggrieved by public misapprehensions. These, they fear, were exacerbated by the reform process, well-intentioned as it was – and are scarcely discouraged by the use of a word as emotive as "whip" (suggestive of some Victorian hunting crop) to describe an air-cushioned, foam-padded stick.
Too many jockeys, however, appear to have welcomed this week's developments as the end of the whip countdowns that appear to have caused them such difficulty. Yes, "common sense" should perhaps mean an inattentive horse at the end of a four-mile chase might pardonably be given a couple more slaps than a sprinter over five furlongs. But the fact is that jockeys have largely proved perfectly capable of riding at least within the spirit of the tougher rules and, as a result, achieved a more pleasing spectacle for the sport's own audience – quite apart from those who might look upon it with suspicion.
To that extent, there should be no going back. But it might yet prove hard enough just to stand still.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Portrait King (3.25 Newcastle)
Youngest runner has a corresponding profile of upward mobility, still unexposed over this kind of distance after a decisive success in a decent race at Punchestown last time.
Deep Purple (3.05 Kempton)
After a long career in Graded races, readily outclassed rivals for his belated first handicap at Sandown in December. Only 5lb higher here and, best fresh, given a good break since.
One To Watch
The Bear Trap (Rebecca Curtis) has been learning the ropes in novice hurdles, readily holding on to fourth once headed at Ludlow on Thursday, and needs monitoring once switched to handicaps.
Where The Money's Going
Moon Dice is 14-1 from 20-1 with William Hill for the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle at Cheltenham.
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