Interference debate won't go away
I have been writing a weekly column on racing for the last decade. In that time, I can count on one hand the number of times I covered the same subject twice in a short space of time. I am very aware that people don’t want to hear the same points repeated and want fresh subjects to discuss. Yet, this is the third time in four weeks I have wrote about the stewarding of interference in Britain and Ireland. I will make no apologies to anyone for continuing to focus on it, as the level of support for change across the industry, and the lack of engagement from the regulatory bodies in response to it demands continued focus.
As much as the regulatory bodies seemingly hope this issue will just fade away from widespread attention, the situation is now so serious that at the height of the Flat season it is sadly inevitable that more interference incidents will occur and bring the subject back into focus. It isn’t going to go away until changes are made.
Havlin's 10-day ban overturned
Another aspect of this issue was brought into focus by Rab Havlin’s successful appeal against the 10-day ban for careless riding he was given for this ride:
To be fair to the BHA and stewards on the day, they enforced the rules in line with how they generally are enforced on British racecourses these days in giving Havlin a 10-day ban on the day. However, for the independent appeals panel to rule that no riding offence had been committed and quash his ban altogether was a genuinely remarkable conclusion for them to reach. The reasons for this decision can be read here.
As surprising and contentious as this decision was, even within the context of British racings lenient treatment of interference, one can’t help but wonder what observers in other major racing nations must think when they see what class of incident can be judged as accidental in British racing. It isn’t a good look.
While this judgement may not strictly set a precedent in legal terms, one can be sure that the memory of it will weigh on the minds of some raceday stewards in Britain when assessing interference incidents in the future. It would be entirely human for stewards to dread a judgement they made being quashed by an appeals panel for obvious reasons. A judgement such as that made by the appeals panel in the Rab Havlin case last week can only serve to make stewards more reluctant to punish interference in line with the guidelines given by the BHA. That is the worrying bigger-picture impact of such judgements that cannot be ignored.
Careless Bowman gets six-week ban in Australia
For that verdict to be reached on the same day that Hugh Bowman was given a six-week ban for his role in a shocking incident in Australia served to shine a very unflattering light on just how out of sync the two stewarding systems are. Of course, the Bowman incident also served to illustrate that even in jurisdictions with heavy punishments in place for interference, terrible incidents can still happen. However, with six weeks on the sidelines to reflect on his actions, one can be sure Bowman will ride with a career-high standard of care when he returns. Can the same be said for those that are punished so comparatively weakly (or not punished at all in some cases) in Britain and Ireland when they do wrong?
What the Bowman incident also did was give a real-life example of one of the fears expressed in my first article on this subject. This is that the death of a horse due to avoidable interference in a high-profile race could generate so much negative reaction in the mainstream media and on social media, that racing would be in a very weak position to defend. The Bowman incident didn’t happen in a high-profile race, it came in a handicap for two-year-olds on a relatively routine card at Rosehill, yet it set social media ablaze and was covered on evening news bulletins around the country.
This is one of the real dangers of the current situation in Britain and Ireland, in which interference has become so worryingly common. Considering just how aware and reactive to public perception the BHA in particular have been in recent years, it is very surprising indeed that they seemingly don’t see the potential for a PR nightmare caused by a high-profile case of avoidable interference that has shocking consequences. Their inaction on this situation will put them in a very weak position to defend themselves and the sport if such a scenario plays out. The regulators in British and Irish racing have allowed themselves to become international outliers in how leniently they police interference, and this fact could come back to haunt them if it isn’t addressed.
Finally, in all the discussion of this issue in the last few weeks, not one person I am aware of has even attempted to justify the proportionality of punishments for careless riding compared to other offences in racing. In Britain for example, a rider can be banned for 10 days for failing to ride out for second or third, 12 to 21 days for taking the wrong course, 21 days for failing to weigh in after winning, or 12 to 14 days for riding a finish too soon. All of these are penalties for first offences, and similar penalties are in place in Ireland. It goes without saying they are all serious errors for a jockey to make, but none of them are ever likely to put a jockey in danger of serious injury or worse.
Consistency and penalties need improving to treat the cause
Yet, serious incidents of interference that result in horses and jockeys hitting the ground and being put at very real risk of serious injury or worse, have very rarely resulted in the offender receiving a ban of longer than 10 days in Britain or Ireland. It isn’t a surprise that no one has attempted to justify the proportionality of these punishments as it would simply be impossible to do so.
There are other subjects related to this one that have also come into focus during this discussion. It is clear that there is widespread dissatisfaction with how the interference rules are interpreted in relation to decisions in reversing the placings of races. The stewarding system itself has also come under scrutiny, with many participants expressing concerns about how consistent the stewarding can be when the panels are made up of such a wide variety of stewards of varying ability.
These are bigger, more complex and contentious issues to deal with, but I have no doubt that if penalties for interference were increased by a meaningful amount, the consequent reduction in interference incidents would result in less stewards’ enquiries and related controversies. Treat the cause, not the symptoms.