Hughes back with a bang as BHA retreats on whips
Humiliating climbdown by regulator sees bans set aside under revised rules, but rancour still lingers
Though their mood seemed increasingly militant last night, all jockeys might do well to confine their dissent to the sort of gesture made by the one who rode the first winner at Newbury yesterday.
Nicely combining elements of triumph, angst and relief, Richard Hughes brandished his whip towards the stands as he passed the post. As it happens, he had barely needed it. Indeed, as though illustrating the protests of so many riders over the previous 11 days, he used it primarily to steer and straighten his mount. But the very fact that Hughes was here at all, rather than on the golf course as scheduled, showed that the outstanding concerns of his peers no longer warrant any reckless escalation of the whip debate.
The rancour stoked so heedlessly by the British Horseracing Authority has by no means abated, despite amendments yesterday to the contentious new whip rules. Most jockeys canvassed at Newbury were understood to favour some kind of strike action, and soundings continued across the profession overnight. But they should recognise that the regulators, in acceding to so many of their demands, have humiliated themselves as far as they ever will.
In what should be credited as an overdue show of character, the BHA had earlier redressed several of the more egregious difficulties arising from the radical new whip regime introduced the previous week. Sadly, some of its other follies can never be redeemed – primarily the crass timing of untested changes, just five days before the sport's new showcase meeting, and the festering atmosphere of recrimination provoked by its clumsiest provisions. But at least the BHA has now rescinded the most flagrant injustices, notably the suspension that would have prevented Hughes riding Strong Suit at the Breeders' Cup, and the bewildering forfeiture of the biggest prize ever won by a jockey on British soil. Christophe Soumillon can now bank the £54,000 due for what any sensible witness could only acknowledge as an exemplary ride on Cirrus Des Aigles at Ascot last Saturday.
Neither Soumillon nor Hughes even reached the prescribed Flat-race limit of seven strikes, instead being trapped by the clause restricting them to five inside the furlong pole. Their punishment failed absurdly to fit the putative crime. Hughes has long been admired as the most artistic and sympathetic of horsemen, and within four days had twice been snared by marginal misjudgement in the heat of battle. He was so disgusted that he handed in his licence on the spot, vowing not to ride again until the rules were changed. Three hours after the BHA detailed the revisions, Hughes was at Newbury.
Critically, the division of the maximum use either side of the furlong pole has now been abandoned. Prize-money, moreover, will only be forfeited in those cases where a jockey has so palpably exceeded his limit – in effect, by two extra strokes – that he receives a punishment of seven days, rather than five.
Many riders remain deeply aggrieved, but obstinately proceeding with a walkout would squander overnight the sort of sympathy Hughes had won with his principled stand. As the BHA picks over the rubble of its reputation, it might well comfort itself that a proper compromise means that nobody is entirely happy. Even welfare organisations as responsible as the RSPCA admitted "deep concern" that jockeys might not have properly grasped the dangers of public distaste for the whip.
The schisms of the past few days will not heal quickly. Ultimately, however, all sides must make common cause on behalf of the sport and its defining glory – not the rider, but the animal beneath.
At least now more on the Clapham omnibus may understand that science detects no welfare issue in the whip, and that impetus from the foam-padded design is sooner a matter of sound than impact. Fresh challenges await jump jockeys, trying to keep mounts focused in heavy ground, but the bottom line is that many races, even in a climate poisoned by resentment, now have a more universally pleasing aspect. The time has surely come to speak more softly – but there is no need for the big stick.
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