Davy Russell punching his horse has damaged racing
Turf Club letting the jockey off could set a dangerous precedent in welfare of horses
When the Irish Turf Club announced on Saturday that the jockey Davy Russell had received only a caution from its disciplinary panel for punching his horse before a race at Tramore earlier this month there was widespread astonishment on racing’s social media and internet forums.
Russell, one of jumping’s most experienced riders, was banned for 14 days last year for being rude to the stewards at Clonmel and got five days for grabbing a fellow jockey’s whip in mid-race in 2014.
A petulant right hook to his own mount’s head, however, somehow incurred no meaningful punishment at all from the authorities.
Had he been rude to a horse and punched a steward, Russell’s ban from the sport might have been measured in months, if not years. But since it was the other way round – and despite the constant assurances from every racing authority, Ireland’s included, that “the welfare of the horses is paramount” – Russell did not get so much as a fine, despite being guilty of “behaviour prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing”.
According to the official report on the hearing, published on Monday, Russell told the panel that “he managed to get the horse pulled up and used his fist to hit the horse on the soft part of her neck, just behind the head to make the horse concentrate. He had his stick in his hand when he did this. He said he would have slapped the horse if he hadn’t had the stick in his hand. He accepted his actions were inappropriate.”
By the time Russell gave an interview to At The Races a couple of a hours later, though, he seemed to have forgotten about his whip and described his punch instead as a “slap”.
Surprise at the leniency of Russell’s penalty was compounded when Denis Egan, the Turf Club’s chief executive, suggested afterwards that he had “absolutely no doubt [Rusell]won’t do it again”. Should the regulator not be more concerned about whether any other jockey will be discouraged from doing something similar, having seen such a senior rider effectively escape without sanction?
There was never any chance that Russell would receive an extended ban for punching the mare Kings Dolly, who briefly threatened to either unseat Russell or jump the “show” hurdle before her race but was standing still in front of it when Russell landed his blow. While there was no clear precedent for the Irish panel to consider, Shane Foley was banned for seven days (reduced to five on appeal) earlier this year for hitting a horse twice with his whip before entering the stalls.
In Britain, meanwhile, Kieren Fallon and Sean Levey both received five-day bans for hitting horses on the head before races, in 2012 and 2014 respectively.
Had Russell been charged under the “disrepute” rules in Britain it would have been a clear sign that the British Horseracing Authority considered it a serious offence, as the current entry point penalty would have been a £2,000 fine or three-month ban. Even with an expensive lawyer to argue a case for mitigation his penalty would have been significant.
The fact that Russell received only a caution suggests that Ireland’s regulator lags behind its British counterpart when it comes to understanding the importance of perception in an incident such as this.
Racing is a conservative sport in many ways but it has been quite adept at moving with the public mood in recent years, the Grand National and the whip being two particular issues.
There is no way to uninvent the internet and a five-second clip of a jockey punching a horse before a race can now go viral before the race itself has finished. It can also be expected to pop up in racing-related Google searches for years to come, and it would at least do something to minimise the damage if the same search highlighted a suitable punishment for the rider concerned.
If such a high-profile and experienced jockey as Russell can punch a horse in the head and to all intents escape without sanction it does a disservice to the sport not only in Ireland but beyond.