THE SCOURGE OF STANDING STARTS NEEDS TO BE BROUGHT TO AN END
The current starting procedures for National Hunt races in Great Britain have been in place for just over five years. Since then they have been causing intermittent outbreaks of outrage, injustice and frustration amongst everyone from direct participants to neutral observers, often on the very biggest occasions in the sport.
While many of the changes introduced back in October 2014 (read in full here) were positive and well received in the main, the one aspect of them that consistently causes problems is the mandatory implementation of a standing start in the event of a false start.
In a nutshell, standing starts are a mess. The vast majority of horses aren’t accustomed to them. This results in many of them not getting away on even terms and/or veering left or right resulting in interference to themselves or others.
A recent example of just how unsatisfactory they can be was seen in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury just two weekends ago. The well-fancied front-runner Not So Sleepy was slowly away from the standing start and was then hampered, effectively ending his chance and having a major impact on the run of the race.
Unsurprisingly, the start led to a great amount of uproar from many observers. All too often the starter attracts the brunt of the criticism, but this is generally unfair as he is just doing his job in enforcing the rules as they are written.
The extent to which these standing starts are considered unfair and unfit for purpose amongst a broad racing audience is illustrated by the results of a poll I ran on Twitter yesterday evening.
Ladies and gents, I have a question for you relating to my article for @AtTheRaces tomorrow.
Regarding the starting procedures in British National Hunt racing, do you agree with the part of the rule that requires a mandatory standing start after a false start has occurred?
— Kevin Blake (@kevinblake2011) February 16, 2020
The only surprise in those poll results is that it wasn’t more of a landslide, as in the five years since the current rules were introduced, I have yet to hear a single non-BHA employee make a cogent case in favour of standing starts.
It isn’t just how unfit for purpose standing starts are that make them inappropriate, it is also the fundamental unfairness of the system. Standing starts are essentially there to act as a deterrent against breaking the starting procedures at the first attempt. Yet, in the event of one or a couple of runners breaking the rules, it isn’t just those that transgressed that are punished by having to participate in a standing start, all of those that adhered to the rules are punished too. That is clearly unfair in the extreme.
As well as that, the current rules represent an ever-present threat of a PR nightmare for the sport as the likelihood of false starts leading to standing starts increases in direct correlation with the competitiveness of the racing. Big fields, big occasions and high tension make it significantly more likely that at least some horses and/or jockeys will be fired up to an extent that leads to a false start and a consequent starting start.
For example, there have been five Grand Nationals since the new procedures were put in place and false starts have led to a standing start in the race in 2017 (26 jockeys given one-day bans for causing two false starts) and again in 2019.
At last year’s Cheltenham Festival, three of the seven races on the opening day of the meeting ended up with standing starts including a particularly unsatisfactory start to the Arkle Chase. These are the highest-profile events in our sport and the often-farcical nature of standing starts do not showcase our sport in a favourable light to a wider audience.
While it isn’t one that can be exploited very often, there is also a loophole in the current starting procedures that leaves it open to sharp practice. If a specific horse is routinely reluctant to start, his rivals can game the system by accidently on purpose forcing a false start and requiring that dodgy starter to jump off from a standing start, making them far less likely to start.
While that may seem like a fanciful thought, it wouldn’t have been difficult to envisage such a scenario playing out on the very biggest stages had Labaik returned to race in Great Britain after his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle victory. Imagine how that would have made the game look?
The long and the short of this issue is that if anyone came out and suggested that standing starts were implemented across the board for every National Hunt start, they could expect to get absolutely slaughtered as it would be a terrible idea. Yet, British racing has integrated standing starts into the rules in a manner that not only makes them a regular feature in British National Hunt racing, but also makes them much more likely to be used on the biggest stages of the sport. This really is a completely illogical approach to the issue.
The solution is a simple one. Keep the initial starting procedures as they are and if there is a false start, repeat the initial procedure a second time. The reason why this isn’t already the procedure is that the starters have found that asking the jockeys to repeat the process tended to result in them coming in even faster the second time.
So, in order to offer a deterrent against this, a new set of punishments could be introduced for both jockeys and horses that cause a second false start, with even heavier bans for those that cause a third false start. Repeat offenders could be dealt with more harshly via a similar totting-up system to the one used for whip offences.
The new rules should also acknowledge that headstrong horses can sometimes be more to blame for false starts than their riders, so perhaps a three-strike system could be introduced to punish horses that are repeatedly adjudged to have caused false starts independent of their rider with a temporary suspension from racing. There could even be a provision for a horse to be automatically withdrawn if it is ruled to have caused two false starts in succession in the same race.
Nothing concentrates the mind of all involved more than the threat of meaningful punishments. This seems a far more targeted and appropriate means to tackle the issue of false starts and punish the actual wrongdoers rather than the current one-punishment-fits-all approach that it so clearly unfair and unsatisfactory.
With the Cheltenham Festival and Grand National just around the corner, the BHA would do well to review the current rules and right the five-year wrong that this rule represents.