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  • Writer's picturePaul Struthers

Fast and furious

It’s been too long since I last posted having been lured away from the blog by work, the weather, kids sport and cricket. It's been especially busy across sport in the last few weeks so this latest blog will touch on some of the most recent developments:

BHA continues to crack the whip

Maybe I was a little hasty to say I’d got it wrong about the whip. Whilst the racing media hasn’t really been reporting on it at all, with the exception of The Sun’s/ITV’s/Sky Sports Racing’s Matt Chapman (@mcyeeehaaa), there are unresolved issues that need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

I’ve been trying to keep a tally of suspension and the numbers are eyewatering. Since the new Rules and Penalties were introduced in the second week of February, there have been 274 suspensions totalling 1602 days (assuming the four outstanding referrals get entry point penalties of 28 days each). In the nine weeks since the new regime applied to both Jump and Flat racing, the figure is 202 suspensions totalling 1169 days.

That's more than four years’ worth of cumulative suspensions in less than four months. Not only is that a staggering amount, I have no doubt it is having a significant impact, both mentally and financially, on jockeys. Not just on those who have been suspended, but on those who are trying desperately to ride within the rules.

Despite the obvious and largely successful efforts of jockeys to adjust to the new regime, a few major issues are clear:

1. The Penalties for some offences are ridiculously disproportionate to the offence. For the occasional wag on Twitter who likes to compare this issue to speeding, getting an 8 days suspension for going one over the permitted level in a Class 2 or above race is like being banned from driving for your first time going 34 in a 30mph zone, as opposed to attending a speed awareness course or taking three points and a modest fine.

2. The BHA has created an entirely unnecessary problem with their changes to some of the technical offences.

3. The idea of “double-tapping”, and the punishment of such, is absolutely bonkers. Whilst the BHA recently announced some minor changes to how it would go about policing this, it only served to highlight the non-sensical, seemingly muscle-flexing nature of the BHA’s position of punishing accidental, incidental and, as evidenced by this winning appeal, highly debatable, contact.

10 weeks into the rules and penalties applying to both codes of racing and it's clear that some elements are going well - whip use has reduced, jockeys have accepted the new permitted levels and racing is arguably easier on the eye (and let's face facts - it's clear that was the desired outcome for those in power).

But averaging almost a year’s worth of suspensions every three weeks demonstrates that this isn't an issue that is going away and it is well beyond time for the BHA to show the same adaptability as the jockeys have shown. Just because jockeys have been quiet, don't think that emotions are not running high.

Dash Debacle

Epsom, The Jockey Club and its Chief Executive, Nevin Truesdale, played an absolute blinder in dealing with the threat of disruption from animal rights activists and fronting up in the media to debate with them, and deserve enormous credit.

Thanks to them, we can focus instead on Drama in the Dash ™, where four horses were seriously inconvenienced by their stalls opening later than the other runners.

It’s not the first time this has happened and won’t be the last. The Steriline starting stalls used in Britain are electric, not hydraulic, and operated by a push button. In my experience this scenario occurs when a horse anticipates the start just after the Starter has pushed the button and forces their stall open, which then slightly interrupts the opening process for other stalls.

Shaun Parker, the BHA’s Head of Stewarding, appeared on ITV with the aforementioned Matt Chapman to explain why the Stewards took no action:

Shaun regularly comes out to explain or defend decisions and his explanations are informative and easy to understand, but this was a long way from his usually strong and robust performance, as he stated that the Stewards didn’t think the four horses had been inconvenienced sufficiently.

Regardless of that (and I think it’s clear they were inconvenienced, as the JockeyCam footage of Live in the Moment clearly shows, though there’s certainly a debate to be had about how much they were inconvenienced) the level of inconvenience was completely irrelevant. The Rules of Racing didn’t allow the Stewards to do anything because they only offer limited powers:

The relevant Rules of Racing are (H)5 and (H)6. H5 gives discretionary powers to void races, but only in the following circumstances (my emphasis):

The Stewards may declare a race void where:

- a false start should have been declared;

- a fault with the starting stalls has materially prejudiced more than one-third of the horses starting the Race.

- no horse covers the course in accordance with these Rules;

- all the horses in the Race ran at the wrong weights; or

- all the horses ran over the wrong course or started from the wrong place.

Furthermore, Rule (H)6 gives powers to retrospectively declare a horse a non-runner, but only in the following circumstances:

In a Race started from starting stalls, the Stewards may declare a horse a non-runner where:

- that horse has been prevented from starting due to a faulty action of the starting stalls; or

- that horse is riderless at the ‘Off’.

In the case of the Dash, no horse was prevented from starting, the stalls hadn’t malfunctioned, and even if the stalls had malfunctioned or there was a fault, less than a third of the field was prejudiced.

The Stewards therefore COULDN’T take any action, so whether they thought the four horses were sufficiently prejudiced or not was entirely irrelevant.

It begs the question why Shaun was giving what appears to be an irrelevant explanation, leaving one to wonder whether the Stewards hadn’t realised what had happened until after they’d announced the Weighed-In signal or, for the conspiracy theorists, whether they were under pressure not to declare non-runners or a void race to the hugely increased Tote turnover, and therefore money for the racecourse, from it being a World Pool day.

It was all very unsatisfactory and I certainly feel huge sympathy for connections and punters of the four horses, but there was nothing that could be done on the day under the current Rules. They need reviewing and it wouldn’t surprise me if an alteration, giving the Stewards power to act in similar circumstances in future, was forthcoming.

Ivan Toney

Where there's betting on sport, there'll be sportsmen and women who fall foul of the rules. Brentford and England striker Ivan Toney has been banned from football for eight months having accepted charges of betting on football over a number of years, including matches he was participating in. Toney's defence centred on his gambling addiction, which was backed up by the highly-regarding Phil Hopley, whose company Cognacity was the first provider of psychological support services to jockeys when I was at the PJA.

As has happened recently in the NFL, there was much criticism of the FA for their hypocrisy in willingly taking betting companies money in sponsorship and advertising expecting their players to be angels. On the opposite side of the fence, there were those that said the players know the rules and he was very lucky not to be given a much lengthier ban.

Call me a sucker but reading sports' tribunal decisions is fascinating, even if its often a tough slog, but this one was especially interesting.

Download PDF • 632KB

Toney admitted to 232 breaches; 126 in respect of matches or competitions his club was playing in or eligible for, and of those 29 were directly related to teams he was playing for or registered with. Drilling further down, he placed bets on his own team to lose seven times, though wasn't playing in those matches, and bet on himself to score in nine matches, all ofwhich he played in.

The sanctions open to the panel to hand down (see pages 22 onwards of the attached) were severe. One instance of betting on your own team to lose ranges from 6 months to a lifetime suspension depending on mitigating and aggravating factors, with the same sanction for betting on an outcome involving yourself.

With 16 of those such occurrences, in addition to all of the other bets, it was certainly within the Panel's gift to issue a ban from football of many, many years though to be fair to the FA they only argued for a suspension of at least 12 months. Typically of a sports governing body though, they deserve only some credit as a result of questioning his gambling addiction and only suggesting a total discount 20% discount on penalty as a result of his guilty plea and personal mitigation.

Addiction of any sort is an illness that has catastrophic impacts, and in a sport that pushes betting at every opportunity it is entirely understandable that Toney's colleagues are up in arms about the suspension. Should you be punished for something that is ultimately outside of your control, or you at least have limited control over?

In the end, the panel reached the conclusion that without the early admissions and personal mitigation, they'd have suspended Toney for 15 months. Even to someone who spent 10 years fighting for athletes and railing against the injustices they experience, that seems incredibly lenient.

As a result of the guilty plea, they reduced the 15 months to 11, and then reduced it by a further three months for his personal mitigation, resulting in the final eight month suspension. Reducing the suspension for being a gambling addict by just 25% leaves a very sour taste in the mouth and I can understand his colleagues' ire.

In the end though, 8 months feels about right taking into account all the elements, but the way the panel got their is far from ideal, and to my mind at least it would have been preferable to have issued a far bigger initial suspension and offered much greater discount for the mitigation.

For example, if they'd have suspended him for 30 months for the breaches, reduced by 25% for the guilty plea and rounded down, that would have left 22 months. That could then have been halved for personal mitigation to 11, with a further three months suspended for a period of time. To me, that seems to strike a better balance of deterrent and empathy, though ultimately I guess how the sausage gets made is irrelevant.

The FA papers over the cracks with its points deductions threat

Talking of the FA, they recently announced that clubs who continuously behave poorly towards officials face the prospect of points deductions at grassroots level, at Step 7 and below.

This is a welcome step from the FA but the reality is that allowing professionals to behave in one way to one set of ultimately ineffective sanctions is always going to lead to problems at grassroots level.

Despite the high profile and column inches devoted to poor behaviour towards officials of players and managers, the situation continues to get worse and reached a new low during and after the Europa League final last week.

Appalling behaviour from the players with Jose Mourinho behaving disgracefully on the side-line and after the match, all ultimately leading to the awful scenes that referee Anthony Taylor and his family had to endure on their way home, despite him having a good game according to pretty much all observers who actually know the Laws of the Game.

Be in no doubt that what happens in the professional game has an impact on grassroots, and at that level you are without the protection of cameras, security and the police..

Enough is enough - the FA, UEFA and FIFA have to stop talking a good game and start taking serious actions against players, managers and clubs at ALL levels, not just grassroots, before it’s too late.

Mourinho deserves a very long ban but in a sport whose authorities allow abhorrent racism to go largely unchecked it's unlikely he'll get one and, even if he does, it won't change anything. Points deductions at all levels are long overdue.

Also long overdue is the breaking of the silence of the otherwise excellent League Managers Association and Professional Footballers Association. Whilst no one appreciates the need to defend your members more than me, there are times when you just need to do what’s right and say something.

Would a generic statement condemning the behaviour and stating that they would work with their members and the authorities to significantly improve behaviour really be asking too much?

PGA U-Turn a tough row-back

Two major sports news items broke yesterday just as I was about to publish. There's not time to do either subject justice but it would have looked odd not to comment on either.

The US PGA announced "an historic" deal, formally linking up the US PGA and DP World Tour (formerly European Tour) with the Saudi Public Investment Fund and LIV Golf. You say historic, I say hypocratic.

Coming so soon after a US judge permitted the impending litigation to go to trial, one is left wondering which side was most scared about what the impending disclosures would put into the public domain.

The PGA's vehement opposition to LIV Golf leaves it's Commissioner in a pickle, and judging from his response he's at least had the decency to virtually offer no defence. His previous opposition was based on "information available to me at the time." I'm guessing that information didn't have lots of zeroes on the end of it. As ever with sport, follow the money...and Ewan Murray's excellent piece in the Guardian sums it up better than I ever could.

Snooker's race fixing case reaches impressively swift conclusion

Somewhat buried by the PGA's bombshell news (though issued before they did, so no suggestion at all it was intentional), the WPBSA announced the results of it's Disciplinary Commission's hearing into match fixing.

10 players received bans from the sport ranging from a lifetime to one year and eight months. The Commission's reasons are 58 pages long and I haven't had the time to digest them, but justice was incredibly swift.

Download PDF • 750KB

From being first alerted to suspicious betting in August 2022 to a hearing taking place between 24th April and 3rd May 2023 is just nine months. The speed of the process raises some concerns about the fairness of the process, and it's a certainly a concern how few players were legally represented, but further reading of the reasons is required to establish whether any such concerns are justified.

If those concerns are misplaced, there is a lot for other governing bodies to learn. More on that next time.

As ever, thanks for reading and comments very much welcomed.

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