Stewards given whip hand with new guidelines
Not for the first time, new guidelines governing use of the whip were rushed through yesterday with one of British racing's showcase occasions specifically in mind. It would be disappointing, however, if regulating in haste on this occasion caused quite so much repenting at leisure.
With next week's Cheltenham Festival in mind, the British Horseracing Authority had already completed a humiliating series of amendments to controversial rules introduced just before the inaugural British Champions Day at Ascot last October. Where jockeys had previously triggered an automatic infringement by using the whip more than seven times on the Flat (or eight, over jumps), stewards would be asked to view that tally merely as the prompt for a possible inquiry, thereafter to use their discretion. Yesterday the BHA published a protocol for doing so, while rightly stressing that jockeys should not mistake it as anything resembling a carte blanche.
Acknowledging "that the incentive to breach the rules is greater in more valuable races", the BHA has authorised stewards to fine jockeys anywhere between £200 and £10,000, depending on the gravity of the offence and the earnings at stake, in jump races worth more than £20,000, and Flat races of more than £27,500.
The obvious concern is that different panels of stewards may reach inconsistent conclusions. Stewards will be asked to consider a ride in the round, using such nebulous gauges as force, frequency and efficacy. If satisfied that the whip has been used in suitably "measured" fashion, stewards may choose to disregard its use in certain, rather more specific scenarios. These include slaps administered to keep a horse in contention "prior to what would be considered the closing stages"; to maintain focus and concentration; to correct a horse from hanging, or running down an obstacle.
A rider found to have used his whip, without exculpation, once over the permitted level will be suspended for two days; the ban will be extended with each slap thereafter. Repeat offenders will be referred for lengthy suspension, albeit things will be going badly awry if any contrive a fifth offence in six months.
Irish riders, bemused by the chaos in Britain since October, will be made familiar with the regime as it now stands before the Festival. Paul Bittar, the new BHA chief executive who has wasted no time in dismantling the work (and arguably the reputations) of fellow directors, trusts the whip will no longer distract from the glories of Cheltenham and Aintree.
"It is vital our sport's customers and viewers have confidence that the welfare of racehorses is not being put at risk by a rider's use of the whip," he said. "I am confident in our ability as a sport to manage welfare issues and believe that taking account of the design, together with the lower thresholds for use of the whip, we have effectively removed the potential for use of the whip to be a welfare problem.
"With everyone in racing, we at the BHA have a role to play in increasing understanding of why the energy-absorbing whip should be considered an acceptable and important tool of a jockey's trade. Communication is key to this, but ultimately the level of public confidence will depend on the jockeys abiding by the rules."
This last point is absolutely critical. Jamie Stier, as director of raceday operations and regulation, will be working with jockeys and stewards in implementing the new regulations. Stier, who took much of the flak when the regulations were originally changed in October, emphasised: "It is important riders do not misinterpret the ability of stewards to exercise discretion as a reason to use their whip more than they do at present. The objective is to maintain the improved standards of riding which have resulted from the significant efforts made by riders to abide by the reduction in threshold levels regarding use of the whip, while applying discretion where warranted."
Paul Struthers, chief executive of the Professional Jockeys' Association, declared himself "very confident that jockeys do not see this as simply an increase in how often they can use the whip, but a sensible approach to a matter that cannot reasonably and fairly be regulated by strict and arbitrary limits".
Chris McGrath's Nap: City Ground (3.50 Newcastle)
Has proved very disappointing over hurdles this season but is plunging down the weights as a result and hinted at a revival in a recent spin on the Flat.
Next best: Trustan Times (4.50 Newcastle)
Progressive young chaser on a fair mark for the switch to handicaps. Unlucky at Market Rasen last time, jumping well and bang there when badly hampered.
One to watch: Lyreen Legend's Grade Two win at Thurles last week advertised the Cheltenham prospects of Boston Bob (Willie Mullins), who had beaten him impressively at Leopardstown and is engaged in both the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett.
Where the money's going: Street Entertainer is 12-1 from 25-1 with William Hill for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham next week.
Cheltenham countdown: 7
My top fancy for the Festival - Paul Nicholls, champion trainer: "Our best chance is Big Buck's, but the best value could be Sonofvic. He's unbeaten over hurdles and was only two lengths behind Grand Crus in his first chase. He then jumped appallingly next time, and will be back over hurdles in the Pertemps Final."
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