Don’t blame stewards – rulebook encourages reckless racing
Culture in these islands ensures best horse keeps the prize – regardless of behaviour
Bondi Beach ridden by Colm O’ Donoghue (purple cap) wins The Ladbrokes St Leger Stakes Race after Simple Verse ridden by Andrea Atzeni was disqualified following a steward’s inquiry at Doncaster Racecourse. Photograph: Julian Herbert/Getty Images
Racing’s international circus moves to Paris this Sunday for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Some of the world’s best horses will be encouraged to run very fast by skinny people in silks, all of it overseen by stewards invariably loudly cursed by punters as incompetents holding their binoculars back to front. Such is the lot of every referee, so plus ça change there.
Those Longchamp stewards will, however, have black and white rules. That doesn’t mean they won’t get broken: split-second racing decisions mean incidents always occur. But the interference rules to deal with them are clear.
If horse A interferes with horse B to the extent it affects horse B’s final placing, then A is put behind B. Easy as 1-2-3.
It’s not perfect. Sometimes it can mean a horse C that was nowhere near the scene of the crime, and nowhere near the best horse in the race, becomes a winner. And sometimes the stewards do indeed appear to be holding their jumelles the wrong way around.
For instance, Aidan O’Brien’s sole Arc winner, Dylan Thomas, shouldn’t logically have even made the frame in 2007 such was the damage he caused, but somehow was allowed keep it.
So just as with all referees, accusations of a lack of consistency get flung around like seeds in the popular wind, as if some sort of perfection is actually attainable.
But crucially the French rules have clarity. They are also culturally in line with much of the rest of the racing world: if you impact on a rival’s chance by causing interference, you get placed behind it. Easy-peasy to understand, for jockeys, trainers, punters: no one gets to foul just because it suits them.
Maybe the safest bet for Arc weekend, however, is a scenario where a visiting jockey from the alternative Irish or British culture instinctively reverts to type and provokes that dreaded steward’s enquiry klaxon.
Cue bluff English-speaking indignation, accompanied by ‘insights’ such as horses not racing in lanes, all of it leading up to a crescendo of pique at the best horse not being allowed to win because the rules in France are too strict.
It occurred last year when the Joseph O’Brien-ridden Gleneagles got thrown out for hanging across two rivals in the closing stages. He was the best horse on the day. But he broke the French rules. And those rules are rooted in the logic that just because you’re the best, it doesn’t mean you can do what you want.
It wasn’t hard to feel for O’Brien. He comes from a racing culture where the official policy is to resolutely make sure the best horse keeps the prize. And it’s a culture which last week saw the British authorities effectively all but enshrine the absurd logic that says it’s okay to break the rules just so long as you’re the best.
Now, it’s hard to get worked up about a Qatari prince successfully appealing the decision to disqualify his horse, Simple Verse, from the St Leger, just as it is safe to assume the billionaire team at Coolmore Stud didn’t lose much sleep at their horse Bondi Beach having the prize taken away from him.
But a dangerous precedent has been set because the Leger scenario is hardly a singular peculiarity in what is becoming a disciplinary free-for-all that applies in these islands.
Bondi Beach’s jockey Colm O’Donoghue moved his horse into a perfect position, just behind the leader, trapping Simple Verse inside him. The latter’s jockey, Andrea Atzeni, had a dilemma: sit and suffer, and hope for a gap, or pull back and go around. He did neither. He simply barged his horse into O’Donoghue’s to get out.
Atzeni did that because he knew he’d get away with it. This is a culture where, if the prize is big enough, the jockey takes one for the team. He gets a few days suspension but the horse keeps the prize. It is so ingrained that if Atzeni hadn’t barged his way out, his employer would’ve been within his rights to wonder why not.
But in the heat of the moment the Doncaster stewards didn’t follow the script, judging that the momentum Simple Verse cost Bondi Beach by barging into him was worth at least the head margin he was beaten by.
Ten days later, the British Horseracing Authority coldly concluded they were wrong and gave the race back to Simple Verse.
Who’d be a steward trying to implement a vague rulebook on the back of that? More importantly who’d be a jockey?
What Atzeni did was calculated but hardly constituted jockeyship. Instead it was another crude example of a flawed rulebook effectively encouraging the sort of recklessness that makes deliberately colliding into a rival at 40mph a legitimate tactic.
It has become the norm; horses cannoning into each other, swerving, being allowed hang accidentally-on-purpose in order to impede. And it has become the norm because jockeys adapt to the culture they operate in.
Race-riding is inherently unsafe anyway. But it hardly needs to be made any more unsafe by a system that puts jockeys in such an invidious position that they’re expected to indulge in the sort of reckless riding that endangers both themselves and others.
Jockeys everywhere in the world ride to the rules they’re used to. What the BHA did last week was set a precedent that says it not only pays to jockeys to foul but that winning excuses everything.
It is the ludicrous logic of a ludicrous rulebook and it needs to be changed before something dreadful happens to remind racing’s top-brass that the current culture is a cop-out.
France’s black and white rules may not be perfect but they’re infinitely superior to a grey mess.