In a staggering triumph of petty literalism over common sense, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) last night came to an incendiary verdict in their challenge to the riding tactics of the most powerful stable in Europe.
Aidan O'Brien, who has prepared 20 Group One winners from Ballydoyle this season, was fined £5,000 and two of his riders, Colm O'Donoghue and Johnny Murtagh, were each suspended for seven days after being found in breach of the rules governing "team tactics" when Duke Of Marmalade won the Juddmonte International Stakes.
The three left for Co Tipperary with no comment, but O'Brien had made his feelings plain in his impassioned evidence to the disciplinary panel.
O'Donoghue, who rode the favourite's pacemaker at Newmarket, admitted to having been unwittingly in breach of the BHA's new rules governing horses ridden in the same interest. Riding Red Rock Canyon, he was perceived to have vacated a path on the rail as Murtagh sought a run on Duke Of Marmalade. After the race Murtagh acknowledged to the press that he had depended on O'Donoghue letting him through, although yesterday he clarified that he had simply told O'Donoghue not to get in his way "if he was dying in front".
It was two years ago this weekend that O'Brien was exonerated of a similar charge following the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot. His indignation that day had been vivid, and he told the panel yesterday that he had subsequently implored all his riders to be scrupulous in ensuring that pacemakers were ridden in such a way that not even the most warped imagination could discover anything sinister.
He claimed the charges came from "fantasy land" and that he and his patrons, at Coolmore Stud, had become "paranoid" about the issue of pacemakers. "The last thing we would ever want is to win any race, anywhere, if anybody thought for one minute that it was anything but fairly run," he said.
But a revision to the rules last March stressed that it would be an offence for a rider to make any manoeuvre in favour of a stablemate, regardless of any material alteration to the result. Though a number of zealots in the media had urged the BHA to take action, a discreet word in O'Brien's ear would surely have sufficed. As it is, they have ignited a firestorm that the Ballydoyle counsel, John Kelsey-Fry, feared will "sully and besmirch" a trainer at the pinnacle of his career.
The BHA stressed that they did not impugn anyone's integrity, and accepted that all three men had been ignorant of the rules. This was no defence, however, and O'Brien was found to have given inadequate instructions. Furthermore they saw fit to punish Murtagh under a rule prohibiting any licensed individual from acting in a fashion prejudicial to the proper conduct of the British sport, a charge that will be taken especially hard by his employers.
O'Brien said he became aware of the new wording of the rules only on St Leger day, earlier this month. But he said that since his last appearance before the panel he had tried to institute a culture among the Ballydoyle riders that would make them immune to any rule governing pacemakers. "We've nearly gone paranoid in case they cause interference to any horse," he said. "It would put a stain on us, and the lads knew it was a mortal sin. No matter what the rule was, [our] instructions couldn't be wrong."
The BHA allows seven days for an appeal, starting from the date when its written reasoning reaches Kelsey-Fry. There is no danger of Murtagh missing the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Sunday week, because there is no Flat racing scheduled in Britain that day.
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