Kevin Blake

Last Sunday's Phoenix Stakes revealed further imbalance in domestic stewarding, and Kevin calls for change.

Phoenix Stakes stewards’ enquiry draws attention to stewarding inconsistency

Away from the very impressive winner Lucky Vega, the main talking point after Sunday's Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh was unquestionably the stewards’ enquiry that followed.

While the focus of the debate on the stewarding of interference has, at least on this page, been on the perceived lenient punishment of riders that commit riding offences which put jockey/horse safety at risk, this controversy focused on the separate - but related - subject of the stewards’ willingness to reverse placings due to interference.

The sequence of events that came under focus in this case were the interactions between the second-placed Aloha Star and the third-placed The Lir Jet. As the winner was in the process of surging clear, those two were battling it out for the runner-up prize. Having got upsides each other at the two-furlong pole, Aloha Star seemed to take a slight lead soon after that, which she maintained to the line by a fast-diminishing short-head. 

The focus of the enquiry was that Aloha Star and The Lir Jet both moved significantly to their left in the final furlong-and-a-half or so, with the question being whether Aloha Star had interfered with and/or intimidated The Lir Jet into moving that way. Given that both jockeys were utilising a right-handed drive and there didn’t seem to be any contact between the two, it was a case that could certainly be argued in either direction.

Aloha gets short straw as "clearer cases" slip under radar

The two questions the stewards had to answer in this scenario was whether interference had taken place, and if so, were they satisfied the interference improved the placing of the offender in relation to the horse with which it interfered.

Given that the distance between the two horses in question was a fast-diminishing short-head, if the stewards agreed that interference had taken place, they were very likely to be compelled to reverse the placings. Thus, the focus has to be on the question of whether there was interference or not. Considering the lack of contact between the two and the possibility The Lir Jet was edging to his left of his own accord under a right-handed drive, it was a tough call for any steward to make on the biggest of stages. It could have easily gone either way based on individual interpretation.

To this observer, Irish stewards seem more willing to reverse placings than their British counterparts in recent seasons. However, even considering that, the eventual decision in this case to reverse placings and issue Aloha Star’s jockey Chris Hayes with a one-day careless riding ban seemed to be widely greeted with surprise. Indeed, they are decisions that may well be appealed.

Whether one agrees with the decision or not, the thought process that the stewards followed in coming to it is clear. However, what seemed to frustrate many observers, including an array of industry professionals that expressed those frustrations both at the track and on social media, is the inconsistency of such stewarding decisions. While the stewards clearly attempted to enforce the rules very stringently in this case, such stringency is regularly absent in stewards’ rooms around the country, with much clearer cases not even attracting official enquiries, never mind a reversal. Thus, connections of Aloha Star are entitled to feel sore.

Professional stewarding will arrive - but when?

Regardless of whether one is in favour of tighter regulations of the interference rules, or are on the other side of the fence entirely on the issue, the one aspect everyone is sure to agree on is the importance of consistency in the enforcement of the rules. If they are enforced in a consistent way, everyone knows where they stand and the scope for frustration or a feeling of injustice is greatly reduced.

The problem that causes inconsistency in stewarding is one that has and will continue to be highlighted in this column and elsewhere. This is that consistency is all-but impossible to achieve with ever-changing panels of primarily amateur stewards of varying abilities. Such a system of regulation is not fit for purpose in a professional sport in which the stakes are as high as they are in horse racing. It is a historical relic that will inevitably be replaced with a more appropriate system of professional stewarding.

The question is not if this will happen, it is a question of when. It won’t be a straightforward process and certainly won’t be cheap to implement, but it will eventually happen. One gets the impression the BHA are further along the line on route to this particular destination, and one can only hope the IHRB won’t be too long in catching up. Until they do, frustrations and injustices (both real and perceived), along with repetitive debates on the subject, remain inevitable.

Kevin Blake
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