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  • Writer's picturePaul Struthers

VAR and Tackle Height revisited, BHA gets credit and an opportunity for horseracing

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Not so much a new blog this week, more of a revisiting of two previous ones I’ve written – So Near, So VAR and Lead the horse to water – as there have been important developments relating to both since I first penned my thoughts. I also want to pass a small comment on the British Horseracing Authority’s upcoming changes to their Rules of Racing relating to the use of the crop.

Let’s start with VAR (Video Assistant Referee), as this past weekend saw further scrutiny after Man United's Casemiro was sent off for his part in a melee that occurred in the match against Crystal Palace.


Handling a melee is incredibly challenging for a referee and his or her assistant, who can only step back and try to see as much as they can whilst using the whistle and their voice to try and calm the situation.


It was inevitable VAR would review the incident and it was unsurprising when the referee, Andre Marriner, was called over to the monitor to check for a potential red card offence. As has now become customary, television cameras zoomed in as the referee watched the replays on the VAR monitor, and the video footage replayed by the VAR appeared to clearly show that Casemiro had grabbed Will Hughes round the throat.


Under the Laws of the Game, violent conduct is defined as:


"…when a player uses or attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball…In addition, a player who, when not challenging for the ball, deliberately strikes an opponent or any other person on the head or face with the hand or arm, is guilty of violent conduct unless the force used was negligible.”


It's hard to disagree with hands around the throat constituting violent conduct, and it seemed entirely the correct decision. That is until you saw an alternative view (broadcast that evening on Match of the Day) showed as conclusively as you could expect that Casemiro had actually grabbed Hughes' shirt, close to but importantly not around his neck.

A different angle of the Casemiro "neck hold", courtesy of Match of the Day

Grabbing another player's shirt surely falls short of violent conduct - neither excessive force nor brutality - and was certainly no worse than that of other players in the melee, so it appears the VAR either saw that angle and chose not to show it to the referee, or didn’t see it himself.


Either way it is unsatisfactory and VAR still has a long way to go before winning the confidence of players, pundits and fans.


What is more satisfactory, however, is news that IFAB have agreed to a trial of referees announcing and explaining their decisions, starting with the Club World Cup, currently taking place in Morocco.


It happened for the first time in the match between Al Ahly and Auckland City, and is a major step forward. It’s just a shame IFAB blocked the trial of temporary concussion substitutes…

 

Following the backlash to the Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) announcement confirming changes to the tackle-height law in the grassroots game, the RFU issued a statement apologising for the way the matter had been handled and, in particular, communicated. The proposed changes have been put on hold pending consultation.


In the blog I wrote on the day the RFU announced the changes, I commented that in my view:


“At least some of the criticism could have been avoided if the RFU had taken a couple of simple steps.

Most importantly, they should have included with the announcement at least some initial education materials, graphic images, videos and FAQs demonstrating the new tackle height.

Much of the criticism stems from people assuming you now can only tackle around the legs, which is not the case – waist height is the space between the top of the hip and the ribs…

Secondly, the RFU’s release made reference to studies and trials but outside of a single mention of “a 63% reduction in head-on-head contact” following the trial in France, absolutely no other detail of the evidence that led to this decision.

That just doesn’t make sense to me as some data is already out there and is impressive…


Of course taking those two steps would not have eliminated criticism - far from it - but it would have made a big difference."


As part of their latest announcement the RFU included links to both a detailed paper and a presentation, the two documents providing the research and rationale as well as graphics.


27.01.23 Waist height Rationale
.pdf
Download PDF • 198KB

Tackle height science presentation Jan 2023
.pdf
Download PDF • 719KB

Ideally these documents could have been distilled into easier to digest graphics and videos and we’ll never know why this information wasn’t issued to accompany the initial release. But it highlights the vital importance of involving your comms team in the process at an early stage to ensure you get the messaging around major changes right first time.


Even when that happens it doesn’t guarantee the process of implementation will be friction-free, because major changes never are.


The British Horseracing Authority ticked all the boxes when it announced changes to the Rules of Racing relating to the use of the crop – a lengthy and thorough consultation, detailed report, video, Q&A – and it still hasn’t been smooth sailing. Which brings us on to…

 

I have thus far resisted writing about the upcoming change to the crop rules by the British Horseracing Authority. Whether I agree with the changes or not is neither here nor there, but I strongly suspect racing, and jockeys particularly, are going to experience a lot of short-term adversity as a result of them.


For example, don’t be surprised if we see numerous jockeys ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival for falling foul of the rules when they are formally introduced next Monday. Likewise, multiple suspensions of double-digit days in length at the Festival itself seem assured. A disqualification or two is no less likely.


Currently the biggest issue seems to be a new interpretation of the ‘arm above shoulder height’ rules. This Rule has always been interpreted by the height of the elbow, not the hand, and was traditionally quite loosely enforced. It is clearly a point of emphasis under the new guidelines but hopefully, after a month of bedding in, a sensible compromise can be reached on its interpretation.


The other biggest challenge for jockeys that I foresee – particularly Irish-based jockeys coming over to the Festival – will be the removal of discretion. For more than 10 years Stewards have been able to discount uses of the crop:


“Provided that the manner in which the whip had been used was measured, Stewards may choose to disregard occasions when the whip has been used:


All Races


a) To keep a horse in contention or to maintain a challenging position prior to what would be considered the closing stages of a race;

b) To maintain a horse’s focus and concentration;

c) To correct a horse that is noticeably hanging;

d) Where there is only light contact with the horse;


Jump Races


e) Following a mistake at an obstacle;

f) To correct a horse that is running down an obstacle.”


This discretion has almost been completely removed, except “in exceptional circumstances where individual strike(s) have been used clearly and unequivocally for safety purposes. For example, where a horse continues to hang significantly despite the rider having visibly attempted to straighten their mount with the reins or in order to prevent a horse from running out.”


Going from a system with some flexibility to one with none will undoubtedly cause confusion, particularly given the fact that keeping an accurate count of crop uses is not as easy as it appears from the comfort of a sofa.


Ever thrown numbers at someone who’s trying to count in order to distract them and then laughed when they’ve had to start over? Now try keeping count whilst riding a horse with a mind of its own at 30 to 40 mph, surrounded by other horses, jumping obstacles, and multiple other stimuli and distractions.


Keeping count is certainly possible, and most jockeys in most situations can do it, but to misjudge it or not be certain isn’t the “stupidity” that many people seem to think, and if you forget and happen to use your crop twice more than the rules permit at Cheltenham you'll be suspended for 16 days.


To highlight the potential scale of the problem, the BHA’s Whip Review Committee published data that confirmed 44 rides would have been in breach of the new rules had they been in place during the first week of the bedding in period, as opposed to just four breaches of the existing rules. As they haven’t published any data (or indeed decisions) since it is impossible to know whether the situation has improved over time.


Regardless of those fears, the reality is that I sincerely want to be wrong, and to that end the BHA’s approach of having a ‘bedding-in’ period has been absolutely the right one.

Doing so has caused its own problems – including jockeys being informed, or calculating from what they’ve been told, that they’d have been banned for weeks for rides that would not currently incur and suspension at all, complete with the subsequent media coverage and social media storm. However it is far better to identify issues with the Rules and their enforcement before real-life consequences kick in.

The bedding-in period has served that purpose and should play a part in limiting the impact for jockeys and for racing more generally, and for that the BHA deserves credit.


That said, I wouldn’t underestimate how hard it will be for jockeys to change the habits learned over a lifetime.

 

On the subject of horseracing, an interesting snippet from Sportico’s Morning Lead daily email in my inbox this morning, on why the broadcasts of US sports are increasingly looking like their gaming counterparts:


‘For years, sports video games did all they could to replicate the TV experience, from hiring the same announcers to adding authentic sponsorship placements around their virtual fields.


“Now it’s the other way around,” Fox Sports SVP for technical and field operations Michael Davies said. “You look at what you can do in video games, and sometimes you try to replicate it as best you can.”


The most recent example of that will be apparent during Sunday’s Super Bowl, as Fox plans to integrate player tracking data into its skycam shots, adding names below athletes’ feet for easy identification….

ESPN's use of augmented reality in this weekend's NHL All-Star Game


This is all happening now in part because it can. Cameras have improved, on-field access is better, and graphic rendering time has decreased significantly…


Adding player names, for instance, is not done merely to make gamers feel at home. It improves the experience for everyone, especially the most casual of viewers who could use the help identifying Travis Kelce in the slot.


Those types of light-touch augmented reality elements convey information without taking viewers away from the action…It’s the exact same reason action video games constantly show things like faint health bars and ammo updates, rather than forcing a user to open a menu screen for that data…


For any sports broadcaster in need of a new slogan, here’s an idea: If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.’


This got me thinking about horseracing.


Watching horseracing today is not that much different to watching it 30 years ago. We’ve had some great innovations, including Jockey Cam, and the use of overhead shots, but their use is still relatively rare. The overhead shot, combined with the use of augmented reality by broadcaster NBC, led to the remarkable footage of this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Rich Strike, scything through the field from a seemingly impossible position, becoming a rare example of horseracing going viral for the right reason.

For a sport struggling to stay relevant and attract a younger audience (despite racing being a data-rich sport that should appeal), the advances in augmented reality in broadcasting are a massive opportunity to broaden racing's reach.





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