Not content with opening a can of worms, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) yesterday seemed to tuck a napkin into its collar and reach for a spoon. In confirming a date for its incendiary prosecution of Aidan O'Brien and Colm O'Donoghue, over alleged "team tactics" at Newmarket last month, the BHA announced that the Ballydoyle stable jockey, Johnny Murtagh, would be required to account for his role as well.
Even those who feel that the BHA has lost the plot will feel a grudging regard for its indifference to the dangers of raising the stakes further still. For make no mistake, smouldering indignation in Co Tipperary will now be stoked into a firestorm. Among the charges under consideration by the disciplinary panel tomorrow is effectively one that Murtagh has brought the sport into disrepute. It is a staggering escalation from what more judicious observers viewed as no more than a storm in a teacup.
O'Donoghue was riding Red Rock Canyon as pacemaker for Murtagh's mount, Duke Of Marmalade, in the Juddmonte International Stakes at Newmarket on 23 August. A series of excitable commentators demanded BHA action after accusing O'Donoghue of steering his mount out of Murtagh's path, pointing out that its rules prohibit any manoeuvre in favour of a horse representing the same interests – regardless of whether or not his tactics cause any material alteration in the finishing order.
It has now been decided to examine Murtagh's role, in the light of Rule 220. This not only forbids anyone from aiding or abetting any breach in the Rules, but also states: "No person shall act in a manner which is prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing in Great Britain, whether or not such conduct shall constitute a breach of any of the foregoing Orders or Rules of Racing."
This is explosive stuff, bearing in mind that the BHA's interest seems to have been stimulated by words attributed to Murtagh in a Sunday newspaper the following day. "I was always going to follow Colm," he was quoted as saying. "I didn't want to start worrying about other horses. I just wanted to worry about myself and Colm and I said to him, 'When you get to the four marker just ease off and give me the passage through'. It's what's Ballydoyle's all about."
And that is the rub. For this is indeed what Ballydoyle is all about: the intricate preparation and professionalism that has won the stable 20 Group One races already this season. In the process O'Brien has confirmed himself the pride of Irish racing. His patrons at Coolmore Stud are led by John Magnier, one of the outstanding horsemen in Turf history. The proposition that their success may be partly credited to a cynical approach to the rules, never mind to the integrity or good name of British racing, has taken this excruciating, petty melodrama into a whole new stratosphere of controversy.
In the meantime O'Brien is trying to keep his team on the boil for the final, critical weeks of a campaign that is likely to yield a world record of Group One wins. Henrythenavigator was beaten for the first time this year behind Goldikova in Paris last time, but was yesterday backed to clear favouritism to avenge himself on her stable companion Tamayuz in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Saturday.
But both could yet be upstaged by Raven's Pass and Jimmy Fortune, who have sometimes looked unlucky in their serial pursuit of Henrythenavigator. "We have got closer every time we have met him," Fortune said yesterday. "Raven's Pass's main aim is the Breeders' Cup and the boss [John Gosden] hasn't overdone him for this race – so he is probably a little bit heavier than normal. Having said that, I rode him work the other morning and he is in great form, so I'm quietly confident he will run a very big race."
With pacemakers again involved, Fortune presumably wished to avoid undue mischief when he added: "It's always a bit messy when there are pacemakers, as you are not just thinking about one horse, you are thinking about two or three. You start thinking about whether they will get in your way – but as long as the race is run at a true gallop, it is normally fine."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies