Does a jockey need to be killed before the stewarding of interference is changed in British racing?
The last week has seen any number of racing highlights and stories from both the Galway Festival and the Qatar Goodwood Festival that warrant discussion in this piece. However, the race that made the biggest impact on this observer during that period came at a run-of-the-mill Flat meeting at Lingfield on Saturday evening, specifically the 17:30 race. There is no need to go into any great detail as to what makes this race so noteworthy, as the following footage speaks for itself.
For many years, I have opined in this space and others that the manner in which the stewards interpret the interference rules in British racing essentially enables a style of reckless win-at-all-costs riding that will inevitably end in serious injury or worse for jockeys and horses. Mercifully, both Trevor Whelan and his mount Iballisticvin walked away from their horrendous falls in this case, but the incident and the official reaction to it more than any other more high-profile example in recent times sums up those fears and the dangerous shortcomings of the widespread interpretation of the interference rules in Britain racing.
We cannot know with certainty what John Fahy saw or heard in the heat of the moment on the eventual winner. However, it is very difficult to believe that he wasn’t aware that Iballisticvin had switched to his inside to take what was a substantial gap between him and the running rail. Indeed, close examination of the side-on footage suggests that Fahy looked under his arm whilst administering the last of his left-handed whip strikes, by which point Iballisticvin was all but upsides him. The urgency with which Fahy then switched his whip back to his right hand and used it, coupled with the fact that his blinkered mount started to veer to his left before his subsequent right-handed whip strike even landed, suggests that he was also being steered to his left. All of this evidence suggests that his intention was to try to close the door on his rival. While he almost certainly didn’t intend to cause his rival to fall, it was his mount’s response to his actions that led to Iballisticvin being brought down in the ensuing collision.
The intention of this depth of analysis is not to demonise John Fahy. The salient point is that he rode as he did safe in the knowledge that British stewards are infamously reluctant to demote a winner barring the margin of victory is less than a head regardless of the severity of the interference they have caused on route to victory. The worst the offending jockeys tend to have to fear is a short suspension for careless or improper riding, which in many cases is deemed a price worth paying in exchange for ensuring victory.
So, given how violent the interference was and the shocking consequences of it, what action do you think the raceday stewards at Lingfield took in response to it?
If they found Fahy had been guilty of careless riding by “failing to take reasonable steps to avoid causing interference or causes interference by inattention or misjudgement”, they could have cautioned him or suspended him for anything from two days to 14 days.
Had they found him guilty of improper riding due to him “causing interference by making a manoeuvre when he knew or ought reasonably to have known that interference could occur”, they could have suspended him for between four to 21 days.
Had they found him guilty of dangerous riding due to him “purposely interfering with another horse or rider, or riding in a way that is far below that of a competent and careful rider and where it would be obvious to such a competent and careful rider that riding in that way was likely to endanger the safety of a horse or rider”, his mount would have been automatically disqualified and he would have been suspended for between 14 and 28 days.
The stewards’ judgement? They found Fahy guilty of careless riding, suspended him for eight days and left the placings unaltered.
You can decide for yourself as to whether you think that was an appropriate punishment, but for me, judging that offence to be in the mid-range of careless riding falls disgracefully short of being an appropriate punishment. Indeed, if this incident didn’t represent dangerous riding based on the latter half of the above definition, it really does make one shudder at the thought of what scene of utter carnage would need to unfold for that rule to be enforced in Britain. It is a shocking indictment of how reluctant British stewards are to enforce their own rules that a rider has only been found guilty of dangerous riding in Britain on one occasion since the beginning of 2004 (Mazzola on August 31st 2009). Does that sound right to you?
To be clear, the issue here is not with the interference rules themselves. The rules have recently been harmonised in all the major racing nations in Europe by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, with even the notoriously strict interference rules in France having been changed to come in line with the rules used in Britain and Ireland. The issue is with the British interpretation of them which stands out like a sore thumb amongst other jurisdictions with the same rules due to their willingness to overlook and/or weakly punish so much interference by the first-past-the-post.
The common justification for this more lenient interpretation of the interference rules in Britain is that it seeks to ensure that the best horse on the day is declared the winner. The irony is that not only does their interpretation of the rules essentially enable dangerous win-at-all-costs riding, it also creates fundamental unfairness in how results are decided. All too often, horses are denied their fair opportunity to prove themselves to be the best horse on the day due to interference by a horse in front of them ridden by a jockey that is well aware of the slim chance of such interference leading to a demotion. In British racing, it is the offender rather than the victim that gets all the benefit of the doubt.
At the end of the day, horse racing is all about trying to find out what the best horse on the day is. However, while this may be an important principle to many in the game, when the price of upholding it is the endangerment of both the human and equine participants in the sport, then it has gone too far.
It will be absolutely heart-breaking if it takes an incident such as the above on a higher-profile stage with more tragic consequences for the British stewards to see the danger that their interpretations of the interference rules creates.