Kevin Blake

Kevin looks at racing's reaction to the "stewarding of interference", and what solutions can be put into place?

The concerning bigger picture consequences of the stewarding of interference

I’ve been writing opinion pieces about horse racing for well over a decade. One has to expect, and indeed embrace, the reality that any suggestion for change is likely to be greeted with at least as much disagreement as agreement, in an industry that can be painfully resistant to progress. However, that was not the case with last week’s article.

The suggestion that both British and Irish racing needs to address the overly-lenient stewarding of interference before there is a tragedy, generated a level of near universal agreement that I have never encountered before. Members of quite literally every interest group and demographic from every level of horse racing came out in support of the proposal, including more than a few former and current stewards.

The response was not just confined to our part of the racing world neither. There was comment from interested parties from many different racing nations including America, Australia, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Japan, Hong Kong and South Africa to name a few. Considering how much the British and Irish racing industries rely on investment and patronage from abroad, the level of shock and disgust at the way interference is stewarded here compared to the rest of the civilised racing world, should act as yet another alarm bell for our regulatory bodies on the bigger-picture ramifications of this issue.

One point made in last week’s article that attracted particular attention was the scarcely-believable fact that a verdict of dangerous riding has only been found once during the last 16 years in Britain. As unbelievable as this is, there is a less obvious consequence of the failure to enforce the dangerous riding rule that has had, and still has, potentially serious ramifications for jockeys riding in Britain.

Previous 2001 case rules "careless riding" not negligence

The ruling in the “Caldwell v Maguire and Fitzgerald” case in 2001was a highly-significant judgement for British sport in general, and is important to consider in this discussion. In what was believed to be the first case of its kind, former jump jockey Peter Caldwell sued Adrian Maguire and Mick Fitzgerald for allegedly causing what proved to be a career-ending fall for him in a race at Hexham in 1994. The judge ruled that while Maguire and Fitzgerald had been found guilty of careless riding by the stewards on the day, this did not constitute negligence, as the incident “reflected the cut and thrust of serious horseracing. In theory avoidable, but in practice something that is bound to occur from time to time, no matter how careful is the standard of riding.” Thus, Maguire and Fitzgerald were found not to be liable for damages.

This ruling set a significant precedent for British sport whereby a sportsperson could only be found guilty of negligence if the offence was deemed to be reckless or intentional, rather than careless. In a horse racing context, this means a jockey that has been seriously injured in a racing incident due to the actions of another rider is likely to face a very difficult legal task in recovering damages, or even receiving a third-party insurance pay-out, if the stewards on the day didn’t find the incident to have been the result of dangerous riding. Given that race day stewards in Britain have only made such a ruling on one occasion during the last 16 years, this must be a very uncomfortable reality for jockeys that ride there.

Between this, the very serious day-to-day safety issues that the lenient stewarding of interference bring about, and the apparent widespread support for change in the weighing room, one can’t help but wonder why the Professional Jockeys Association and the Irish Jockeys Association haven’t been pushing for change on the behalf of their members.

Perhaps they feel that asking for a change which will risk their members receiving more severe punishments than they currently do for interference is seen as undesirable. One can only hope that this isn’t the case, as while such a position may seem like a logical approach in the short-term, the long-term ramifications of the current lenient stewarding of interference and the danger it creates has been evident for all to see for many years now. In contrast, much tougher punishments for interference will directly and all-but immediately lead to a safer race-riding environment for all jockeys. This is without question in the long-term best interests of all jockeys.

Stronger stewards' guidelines could lead to inconsistency

It isn’t just the inaction of the stewards on interference that has racing’s participants worried. When speaking to jockeys and trainers on this subject in recent weeks, one concern consistently raised was that if stewards were to be given stronger guidelines to come down harder on interference, there would be a great deal of worry that the current stewarding system would lead to inconsistent, and sometimes unfair, enforcement of the rules. A common opinion was that while some race day stewards are considered excellent at their job, many others are at the opposite end of the scale.

This lack of faith that many racing professionals have in the stewarding system, once again hammers home the case for a revolving panel of high-level professional race readers to police riding offences and integrity from a remote location. The Covid-19 crisis and consequent focus on working remotely has illustrated that technology is more than capable of facilitating such a system. It would help ensure much greater quality and consistency of stewarding, as well as offering more clarity amongst the participants as to what is and isn’t acceptable. If this was implemented, the current on-course stewards would remain an important part of the day-to-day running of race meetings as well as gathering evidence from the participants, but the heavy scrutiny and policing would be left to the professionals.

To take it a step further, one can’t help wondering if there could be scope for cooperation between the BHA and IHRB on the stewarding front. Earlier this year the IHRB began a new arrangement with the BHA whereby the BHA’s betting integrity team took over much of the monitoring of the betting markets on Irish racing. Could this potentially be replicated in the area of stewarding?

Another concern that was raised by more than a few participants in Irish racing in particular, is that they felt conflicts of interest were unavoidable amongst the stewards and trainers/jockeys/owners, given that Irish racing is such a small world. Outsourcing the stewarding to remotely-based professionals with no ties to Irish racing is unlikely to be attractive to everyone, but it would certainly help remove those concerns. One can only assume that such a system would also be more cost effective than the IHRB setting up their own panel of high-level professional stewards.  

Time to defuse racing's ticking time bomb

To conclude, after all that has been said on this issue during the last week, and the near universal support that the calls for change have received from both racing professionals and the racing public, can the BHA and IHRB really risk not amending the stewarding of interference?

This issue has been a ticking time bomb for many years. If there is another catastrophic injury, or even a death of a jockey, as a result of avoidable interference that might well have been prevented had the regulatory bodies acted on the widespread calls for change, there will have to be very serious questions asked about their failure to listen to these calls. One can only hope it doesn’t come to that and the bomb is defused before it explodes.

Kevin Blake
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