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  • Writer's picturePaul Struthers

Stupid or cheating jockeys? 7 reasons why you're wrong.

And the scores are in. It was always going to be challenging for jockeys to adjust, but even the most anxious of spectators must have been caught by surprise about how many fell foul of the British Horseracing Authority's new crop rules in week one.

19 jockeys were suspended in the first week under the new regime for a total of 134 days, including bans of 18, 14, 14 and 11 days. Two jockeys received a combined total of 26 days in one race which didn't look at all as awful at the time as the penalties imposed suggest now.

The nuclear option of disqualification, that to some (including trainers, former & current jockeys, media personalities) was the panacea and would result in no jockey ever going over the permitted level, was also triggered.

Jump jockeys only have to count to seven and stop. So the logical conclusion is jockeys must be stupid, or cheating, right? You’re wrong.

There are seven things I’d ask you to consider.

  1. As I touched on in my last blog, there is a significant amount of psychological research into the impact of interruptions and distraction on short term/working memory. Counting when there are lots of other things to focus on is not easy.

  2. Imagine riding a half-tonne animal, with a mind of its own, at 30 to 40mph. Surrounded in tight space by other half-tonne animals with minds of their own. You’re jumping obstacles. Looking for space. Trying not to clip heels or cause difficulties or danger to your fellow riders. There’s wind in your ears (that’s why cyclists can’t hear you when you’re driving up behind them). Other jockeys are shouting. The noise of the crowd as you approach the finish. It's a bit different to counting on the back of your sofa.

  3. Imagine doing something under one set of rules for over 10 years then having to change, even with a bedding-in period. It would naturally be challenging.

  4. The risk of distraction on impeding decision making is well documented in aviation, hence the expansive use of checklists. Unfortunately, a jockey can’t keep notes whilst riding.

  5. The brain is a funny thing, and the brightest minds still don’t fully understand it. But if you’ve ever walked into a room and forgotten what you went in for, you might have a bit more sympathy to a jockey’s plight.

  6. Still don’t believe me? If you drive a manual, keep count of how many times you change gear. You’ll be able to do it most of the time, until something – a cyclist, a traffic light, a pedestrian you see on the pavement, your hands-free rings, a deer leaps out in front of you, and you’ll soon forget.

  7. If you still don’t believe me, go back to point 1 and start over again.

Of course, as the former CEO of the Professional Jockeys Association I am naturally sympathetic to jockeys and am less inclined to think the worst of them than most are.

Even so, I was surprised to see so many – including senior ones – state that it was "up to us" after the announcement of some quid-pro-quo amendments to the guidelines were announced towards the end of the bedding-in process.

For anyone who was involved in the previous overhaul of the crop rules in 2011, it was hardly a leap of faith to expect the implementation of the new crop rules to be rocky. The owner of Lunar Discovery confirmed his horse

had been disqualified on Twitter.

Saying "it's up to us" was always going to leave them as a hostage to fortune and so it has proved, with a BHA statement issued today on the back of their Whip Review Committee stating:

“Jockeys have had more than four weeks to adapt to the new rules through the bedding-in period. As the jockeys themselves have stated, it is now up to them to ensure that they ride within the new rules.”

The tone of the BHA’s statement may well upset some people, and it undoubtedly might have been better for the BHA to express their obvious exasperation and frustration in a more conciliatory way. But given what jockeys said it’s hardly surprising that the BHA chose to use it against them after such a lengthy consultation process.

As I've said before, whether I personally like the rules or not is neither here nor here. However, regardless of the undoubtedly professional and thorough process that the BHA deserve credit for (and got, from me) I don’t like the new rules and for good reason.

There were 7874 races run in 2020 and 73,843 runners, yet just 297 instances where a jockey was found in breach of the whip rules. This equates to an “offending rate” of just 3.77% of races. Factoring in the occasions where there were multiple offences in the same race, 97% of races had no whip breaches.

Put another way, just 0.4% of all rides resulted in an offence, 69% of which were for just one use over the permitted level. It was hardly the problem some in racing outside of the BHA made out.

As well as thinking the problem wasn't anywhere as close to being as bad as some portrayed, it was driven by what to me was a flawed hypothesis. As I wrote in the PJA's submission to the consultation in September 2021:

“There are some who we know argue for more draconian penalties for jockeys or who advocate for zero breaches (and achieving this by either draconian penalties and/or disqualification). With respect we say this a naïve view. If you want zero breaches of a Rule (or law of the land) you completely outlaw the issue you are trying to deal with, and even then you will not end up with zero offences.

"Furthermore, is the problem not the level of Penalty or the fact there are a relatively small number of breaches of the whip rules, the majority incredibly minor in nature, but the fact that a very small number of people believe the use of the whip is intrinsically cruel? Even if this supposed nirvana of zero rule breaches could be achieved, this group would not stop thinking the whip was cruel.”

All that being said, I accept the arguments around the importance of protecting racing’s social licence, and know that external pressure was being exerted, helped in no small part by our Parliament’s remarkably lax lobbying rules, as written about ad infinitum in Private Eye.

The whip rules as they currently appear on the BHA's Rules of Racing website

Regardless of my personal view, the Rules are in place – well, sort of at least as the official record of the Rules of Racing still states the old rules and penalties – and it’s hard to see them changing, not in the short term at least.

So what happens next?

First things first, most of the jockeys suspended in week one were inexperienced to some degree. The overwhelming majority of senior jockeys avoided falling foul of the rules, so there is some cause for optimism, though the fact several very experienced jockeys still did is worrying.

I’d be amazed if jump jockeys don’t massively err on the side of caution over the next week, as a suspension of more than four days will rule more jockeys out of the Cheltenham Festival (suspensions of four days or less aren't served on days where there is Grade 1 racing, as there is every day at the Festival). Though given the points I made above it’s not out of the question that more could miss the biggest meeting of the year.

As for the Festival itself, it’s close to impossible to foresee an incident free week, particularly with the presence of Irish jockeys who’ve never ridden under these new rules and Amateur riders who rarely ride under them, both groups of riders that on average breached the old rules at a much higher rate. If the bookies were offering odds on a post-Cheltenham disqualification I’m confident it would be odds-on.

In the medium term the problem is unlikely to go away. Flat jockeys will almost certainly have to endure a similarly challenging implementation period, and evidence from the United States suggests this could be a long, rocky road as well as further undermining the argument of disqualification as the nirvana for eliminating breaches. HISA’s crop rules have been in force since 1st July last year and disqualifications from purses continue to occur some seven months on.

Twelve years ago the solution to me and BHA CEO Paul Bittar was obvious – bring back discretion. And it worked. This time that isn’t an option as discretion doesn’t work with disqualification and I can’t see the BHA bringing in one and dropping the other, so solutions are much harder to find.

One possible option might be to mirror the latest incarnation of France Galop’s rules. The limits are lower – which intrinsically reduces the likelihood of miscounting or forgetting, reducing the likelihood of being in breach – and the penalties are much mor appropriate to the offence. It would also have the added benefit of at least some harmonisation.

But whether it's out of a legitimate desire to maintain racing’s social licence, to appease the unappeasable or out of a paranoid concern about optics (or a combination of all three), racing in the western world is slowly backing itself further into the corner and running out of ideas.

With administrators neither confident enough to resist those demanding change, nor confident enough to ban the crop altogether, this sort of increased harmonisation might be the only sustainable longer-term solution.

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