Epsom stewards open inquiries to TV scrutiny on trial basis

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The Independent Online

Whether on grounds of accountability or engagement, the televising of stewards' inquiries is an ambition long cherished by those striving to drag racing into the 21st century. The news that a trial has finally been agreed, then, will certainly be greeted with rather broader enthusiasm than some of the other projects so far proposed by Racing For Change. Starting with the admission of BBC film crews at the Investec Derby meeting next week, the British Turf could soon achieve a wholesome new meaning for inquiries being staged in camera.

Caricature of its Establishment will doubtless deceive many that the experiment has been resisted primarily by the various patricians and officials appointed to pass judgement on riding misdemeanours. In reality, however, it is the jockeys who have been more reluctant to allow public access to the hearings. Why so bashful? Well, we shall see – and hear.

Perhaps jockeys and officials have been equally complicit in the sort of deferential rituals that would invite mockery from outsiders. If so, and all parties are now shamed into treating each other like grown-ups, that would itself represent an adequate dividend.

Only last weekend, there was an episode at the Curragh, in Ireland, that disclosed disturbing insecurities beneath a veneer of high comedy. For it is difficult to imagine any remotely edifying set of circumstances that might explain how a young apprentice jockey managed to get himself suspended for excessive use of the whip, when he had actually dropped it leaving the stalls. Ronan Whelan failed to muster even the few nervous syllables that would have sufficed to draw this fact to the stewards' attention. His boss, Jim Bolger, is admittedly known for instilling standards of discipline that reflect defiantly old-fashioned priorities. But the suspicion persists that the youngster found himself intimidated, even if the stewards ultimately had the manners to extend a full apology when discovering their mistake.

Television viewers would have had fun with that peculiar episode. More typically, however, they should soon discover fresh dimensions of drama in the sport, hitherto suppressed. The gladiatorial format of inquiries would seem to guarantee infectious tension and theatre. Some jockeys apparently dread a new obligation of melodrama in their deportment to each other. But people said that about televising Parliament, as well, and honourable members are still pretty adept at putting each other to sleep.

Kevin Darley, the former rider who serves as chief executive of the Professional Jockeys' Association, admitted a poll of members had been "in no way unanimous" but a majority had voted for the experiment. "We are keen to play our part in modernising the image of racing, and I'm sure the public will grow to appreciate the skills jockeys employ," he said. "This trial will help to illustrate the challenges faced by riders when split-second decisions can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Epsom's unique gradients, uphill finish and deceptive camber test a jockey's skills to the limit."

The enterprise has an experienced voice behind it in Jamie Stier, director of regulation at the British Horseracing Authority, whose homeland long ago established that inquiries can be televised with no loss of dignity or justice. "In Australia, the televising of this type of inquiry has proved to be enormously popular with fans," Stier said. "That the BHA is willing to proceed with this trial underlines the confidence we have in the regulation of racing in Britain."