Kevin Blake

Seamie Heffernan's recent ban for careless riding sees Kevin keeping the spotlight on racing’s “stewarding of interference” issue, and how jockeys are now finding themselves caught in a pocket.

Heffernan case showcases culture that “stewarding of interference” has created

The discussion about the stewarding of interference rules has continued apace in various racing jurisdictions around the world, and it returned to centre stage in Ireland after Seamie Heffernan picked up a four-day ban for careless riding at Gowran Park 12 days ago. It wasn’t so much the incident itself that attracted attention, rather the interview that Heffernan gave to Racing TV in the aftermath, that generated the most discussion.

It was certainly an engaging listen, as such candour is rare amongst jockeys, particularly in situations such as that. Most riders asked those questions would inevitably and understandably be economical with the truth to suit their own ends.

In contrast, Heffernan was honest. He acknowledged knowing he would cause interference to some degree in doing what he did, but felt he owed it to himself and the horses’ connections to make the manoeuvre anyway and do his best to win.

It was clearly far from the most severe case of careless riding one will ever see. The toss can be argued as to whether the punishment was harsh or not, but there is little doubt the rules were broken. Heffernan appealed the decision, and earlier today his four-day ban was reduced to three days. However, rather than getting bogged down in discussion on this individual case, I wish to focus on the bigger-picture comments made by Heffernan on Racing TV.

Rather than being an effective counter to the arguments that were put forward in this column, and by the many others that are in favour of tighter regulation of interference, Heffernan’s comments regarding why he did what he did served to confirm much of the original article I wrote on this subject.

Jockeys obliged to break rules and win despite costs

Weak enforcement of the interference rules in Britain and Ireland has fostered a culture whereby jockeys feel almost obliged to break them if they think it will be the difference between winning and losing. Heffernan made it very clear he felt he was doing the right thing for the trainer and owner of his mount, and for the racing public, by breaking the rules to win. When one looks at the response to his comments underneath the above interview, there are clearly plenty of people who subscribe to the same attitude both inside and outside the weighing room.

However, that argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Being on “the best horse” does not give a jockey a license to break the rules. Heffernan put his mount in a position whereby he benefitted from an advantageous ground-saving, well-covered trip in behind the leaders. But, taking up that position comes with the inherent risk of not being able to get a clear run in the straight. If every rider who found themselves in need of room felt obliged to barge their way out, it would cause mayhem. For anyone to think that breaking the rules so willingly is the right thing to do is very short sighted, given the very obvious potential consequences of interference for jockeys and horses.

This was not a victimless offence that was solely in the interest of the greater good either. What about the connections and backers of the runner-up, whose rider adhered to the rules and was beaten by one that had to break the rules in order to win? Or the multiple horses that suffered interference as a result of Heffernan’s manoeuvre?

It is also wrong to suggest Heffernan would have been called in by the stewards for “not trying”, had he stayed in the pocket he was in and a gap failed to open. I’ve yet to see a horse that was repeatedly denied a clear run being done under the non-trier rule. Ever. It doesn’t happen, and it wouldn’t have happened in this case.

That a world-class rider with decades of experience at the very highest level such as Seamie Heffernan feels almost obliged to break the rules to win a lowly 0-65 at Gowran Park goes a long way to illustrating the problem this whole debate has focused on. If the interference rules and punishments for breaking them represented a sufficient deterrent, it would never have entered Heffernan’s mind to break them in such circumstances, but the reality is they fall a long way short of fulfilling that basic function. Whether people in Irish racing like to hear it or not, the stewarding of interference in Ireland is objectively the most lenient amongst major racing nations. This has led to the situation we now find ourselves in, where so many leading players in the sport are genuinely concerned about the potential consequences of this.

Experience of regulating rules is key - not “how many winners you've ridden”

Finally, as for Heffernan’s comment of “some of these people are passing remark and they’ve never ridden in a race”, a full response to that jibe could fill a page of its own! Given that the likes of Tony McCoy, Mick Kinane, Pat Smullen and Aidan O’Brien amongst many others have come out and publicly supported the call for tighter regulation of the interference rules, this is anything but a jockey versus non-jockey debate. So, for anyone to go down the “how many winners have you ridden” route as some have in recent weeks is a curious move.

Ironically, the chairman of the raceday stewards who handed down the careless riding ban to Heffernan at Gowran Park was Justice Tony Hunt, one of the most prominent criminal judges in the country and a vastly-experienced racing regulator. Justice Hunt, in common with an estimated 80-85% of Irish racing stewards, has never ridden in a race.

Considering how animated jockeys can get when racing journalists who don’t have race-riding experience express an opinion that they don’t agree with, it is surprising they accept being regulated by stewards with such a paucity of what some of them see as necessary experience to have a valid opinion on race riding matters.

While on the subject of Justice Hunt, as far as I am aware, he has never been convicted of any crimes. Yet, society has deemed that his legal qualifications, expertise and experience make him an appropriate and authoritative judge of some of the most serious crimes in our state’s history. One can be sure that Justice Hunt has heard all sorts of legal arguments throughout his career, but it would be hard to imagine his authority to pass judgement on a murder case has ever been questioned by a defendant based on a “how many people have you murdered?” argument..

Kevin Blake
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