Sunday, May 30, 2010

Justice done?

If we don't have a runner on a Saturday, my preferred method of spending the afternoon is watching racing on television. Although we have both At The Races and Racing UK, I tend not to watch that much of either on weekday afternoons, as I usually have more than enough work to do. However, I don't feel too guilty on a Saturday afternoon in making watching television the first priority and work the second. One usually needs to be on the ball, flipping between ATR and Racing UK, but yesterday it was easy with all the British afternoon meetings being on Racing UK. Consequently I saw enough racing from Catterick to make me question whether Tom McLaughlin's punishment (a 28-day ban) fits his crime (being caught on the line on a horse who looked set for victory, having in the final strides lessened the vigour with which he was riding). If I were Tom, I would appeal the severity of the sentence.

We've had hot, dry weather, but yesterday it started to rain over most of the country. Such conditions - ie rain falling on firm ground - makes for treacherous racing conditions as the tracks become slippery. Under such circumstances, Catterick can become very treacherous because of its tight bends. Its worst bend is the bend after the winning post which, because of a design fault shared with probably the majority of British racecourse, comes almost immediately after the post: on all too many British racecourses, the winning post is placed at the end, rather than two thirds of the way down the straight. Placing the winning post at the end of the straight is a very bad idea for two reasons: firstly, it encourages horses to lay in during the crucial final strides of a race, as tracks such as York and Haydock demonstrate time and time again, and, secondly, it means that horses, unless the jockeys ease off before the post, take the bend after the winning post, which is usually the worst bend on the track, at full pelt - and through the year enough horses fall over shortly after the post for it to be clear why this is not a good thing.

Anyway, yesterday at Catterick, with rain continuing to fall through the afternoon on what had started the day as very firm ground, the bend after the winning post was a very dangerous one. Understandably, in every race all the jockeys began to ease their horses as prematurely as they could. Thanks largely to their prudence, there were no fallers until the penultimate race, when Solar Spirit, one of the few horses during the afternoon to be pushed all the way to the line because of being involved in a close fight for first place (he ultimately finished second, beaten half a length), slipped and fell shortly after the line. Fortunately, neither horse nor rider (Saleem Golam) was seriously hurt, but that was merely by the grace of God. A further happy outcome of the afternoon was that, despite nearly all the jockeys taking hold of their horses prematurely throughout the afternoon, the results were almost unaffected, although in the fifth race of the 7-race card Spiders Star finished fourth, beaten a neck for third, but would have finished third had Gary Bartley pushed her all the way to the line. Whether Bartley was reprimanded by the stewards I don't know.

Anyway, come the last race, with a horse having fallen after the line in the previous race, one can understand that the jockeys would have been even more eager to ensure that their horses were balanced and collected by the time they reached the bend immediately after the line. Tom McLaughlin was on the 8/15 favourite in this race, a filly called Vaultage, trained by Ed Dunlop. She gave him a difficult ride throughout the race, missing the start, racing ungenerously and hanging badly all the way up the straight. However, although clearly not the most genuine horse in the race, she was clearly the most talented; and, thanks to a very good ride from Tom, she found herself, despite having done as much wrong in the race as she could, more than a length clear with less than 100m to go, and still travelling strongly. She was still, though, racing erratically, so Tom made what seemed the sensible decision about four strides from the line to sit up on her and get her balanced, not asking her to slow down but allowing her to gallop to the line unpressured, thus massively reducing the chances of her falling after the post. In 99 cases out of 100, this would have been the correct decision and Tom's mount would have won by three quarters of a length - but in this instance the filly slammed her brakes on immediately Tom stopped pushing. She finished second, beaten a head. The decision to find Tom guilty of failing to ride to the line and to achieve the best possible placing was an easy one to reach so he naturally received a suspension. But 28 days? Unless I'm wrong, that's no different to the bans given on past occasions when jockeys have lost races through pulling their mounts up prematurely when there have been no extenuating circumstances, Willie Carson at Chester, Kieren Fallon at Lingfield and Tony Culhane at Pontefract being examples to spring straight to mind. As yesterday's circumstances mean that Tom was far less culpable than were those jockeys, how he can have copped the same penalty is impossible to fathom.

As I say, if I were Tom I would appeal the severity of the sentence. In presenting my case, I would outline the above scenario and I would check to see what (if any) ban Gary Bartley received, because there is no reason for Tom's ban to have been any bigger than Bartley's. I would also check to see what action the stewards took after the penultimate race. I believe that there is a requirement that the stewards, whenever there is a fall on the flat, inspect the area of the course where the fall took place, to find out whether the fault lay with the horse(s)/jockey(s) or with the course. In the case of Solar Spirit's fall, the fault clearly lay with the course: that bend was not safe to be raced around. Having established that, the stewards had four options: firstly, to call off the last race (which didn't happen); secondly, to re-align the bend (which I'm pretty sure didn't happen); thirdly, to take some action (eg throwing sand on the turf) to make the bend less slippery; fourthly, to allow racing to continue without taking any action other than warning the jockeys to negotiate the bend with extra caution. Just acting as if nothing had happened was not an option. Which option did the stewards take. My suspicion is that it wasn't any of the first three - and if that is indeed the case, then I'd say that Tom's case for receiving a reduction on his sentence is very strong indeed. He has been very harshly treated because, unlike previous occasions of jockeys being 'caught napping', he was not actually caught napping: he merely made what seemed at the time a sensible decision, but which sadly and unpredictably proved to backfire.

On a happier note, among the several pleasing results yesterday was the win of the former bumper winner Dayia in a valuable staying handicap at Haydock. She's trained and was ridden by the father/son combination of Jeff and Simon Pearce and, while Jeff has trained bigger winners than that, I suspect that that was Simon's biggest win to date. He's a model apprentice and is very much a son for his parents to be proud of. I am sure that they will have been very proud of Simon (pictured earlier this year in his father's string on the Severals, the second of these two riders) indeed yesterday as he gave the mare a very polished ride. It was a pleasure to watch it.


Nathan said...

Who watches the watchers John? Only last weekend irish apprentice Ronan Whelan got three days for excessive use of the whip. One small problem being he dropped his whip leaving the gates; and this irish guineas day no less! They may have later reversed the ban but suely have a case to answer...

problemwalrus said...

I agree with your comments re safety and the severiy of the ban, there was another nasty fall after the line at York last weekend.The PW betting account soared yesterday after a successful fiver on Dayia who is a favourite of mine - I seem to remember supporting her at similar long odds in a Sandown bumper and she ran well in last years Cesarewitch.
Can't make my mind up for The Derby though!