Ben Curtis will remain on the sidelines for at least another week after his application to lift a 14-day mandatory suspension for breaching Covid-19 protocols at Newmarket last Friday was turned down.
The rider was escorted from the track and stood down immediately for two weeks after he entered the owners’ zone, in contravention of the strict measures employed by the British Horseracing Authority to allow racing to continue.
A preliminary hearing was held on Friday morning, with Curtis represented by Rory Mac Neice, who argued it would be “grossly unfair if he (Curtis) was denied his chance of earning a living and the opportunity of challenging for a championship” and that the rider was not at risk of being a “repeat offender”.
It emerged during the hearing that Curtis had been filming a promotional video with two owners, who he had met away from the track before racing.
Zara Brawley, for the BHA, said: “Mr Curtis accepts that he was in the owners’ zone and the BHA would submit by implication had been in there for at least some time given that he was seated at a table and the film crew had been able to set up and commence their filming of him.”
Mac Neice accepted Curtis had been seated at a table, socially distanced from the owners and crew, for what he described as a “brief coming together”, which incurred no further risk as he had met the same owners earlier in the day.
Brawley argued Curtis’ temporary exclusion from tracks was necessary to “ensure immediate safety, but as importantly, the longer term well-being and successful continuance of racing across the industry more generally”.
His Honour Brian Barker CBE QC, the chair of the independent judicial panel, who heard the matter alone, noted Mac Neice’s contention it had not been a “deliberate flouting” of rules and that Curtis had publicly apologised and returned a negative test for Covid-19, as well as the impact on the rider’s ability to ply his trade.
But he opted to reject Curtis’ application and directed a full hearing to take place on September 11, or a least a review of the interim ban if a full inquiry cannot take place that day.
He said: “Effectively, the BHA is saying that any clear breach, whether it is wilful or negligent, requires the immediate exclusion under this rule and that the risk to general safety in the immediate term is covered by the exclusion until all matters are fully explored.
“The BHA did accept that the effect of this rule in this case of Mr Curtis has a real and profound impact on him. However, it must be viewed in the context of potential damage to the sport as a whole. In any event, matters have been expedited for a full hearing, which they say from their point of view will be ready for next Friday.
“I have listened carefully to the points made by Mr Mac Neice, but in my view, the fact is Mr Curtis was on notice really from the moment he entered the racecourse of the necessity of compliance. He was spoken to and it’s abundantly clear to everyone from July 4 (when owners were allowed back on course) – whether they are trainers, staff, owners or jockeys – what is required.
“In weighing these matters up, I can’t ignore the larger principle that the control of the pandemic concerns everybody and that careful and cautious measures are necessary for the benefit of all.
“In my view, the avoidance of potential risk is essential to the effective continuance of racing and its general reputation.
“I go back to the rule itself, the Covid-19 requirements, where in my view the interim suspension was properly triggered. This is an exceptional rule, but grounded in exceptional circumstances.
“Adherence has a bio-security foundation, and that adherence to the well-known and well-publicised rules for the protection of the public and the future well-being of the sport, in my view, outweigh the personal difficulties being faced by Mr Curtis.
“For those reasons, I decline to lift the suspension.”