Saturday, November 13, 2010

Who ate all the logic?

Twin riding highlights for me of the first day of the Cheltenham Open Meeting (and, I'm afraid, I can hardly bring myself to use that absurd term. Why is it open? Or, alternatively, why is it more open than any other meeting? Is admission free? Are there no qualification clauses for any of the races?) were the wins of William on the lovely potential champion Time For Rupert and of James Banks on Rustarix. William features regularly on this blog so he needs no introduction, but I don't think that James has reared his wild head in these parts previously, so a brief introduction won't go amiss. One thing that James, who was brought up in Newmarket and who used to appear in this stable quite regularly, has always been able to do is to ride like the wind. However, he spent most of the tail-end of his childhood and the earlier part of his adulthood as his own worst enemy, hence the fact that, despite his huge talent, he's only just getting going as a race-rider now - and he'll turn 27 next week. It is, though, hugely to his credit that he has managed to shake off his bad habits, habits which are far easier to acquire than to lose, and to knuckle down on the long, hard road to fulfilling his potential. As William's career to date has shown, riding extremely well, working extremely hard and conducting oneself in a very professional manner do not provide a cast-iron guarantee that one will receive either the patronage or success which one deserves; however, doing so certainly helps. So, the fact that James now seems to have got his act together is great news and I hope that he might soon be regarded as a successful up-and-coming young(ish) jockey. His many friends in Newmarket would definitely be very pleased indeed to see that coming to pass.

To move slightly sideways to a jockey-related topic, I feel that it's now time to air another gripe. I was reminded that this tirade was overdue during the Breeders' Cup when Utley ran in the Juvenile Turf. I saw this colt win his maiden at Yarmouth. I watched the race standing by the outside rail about 30m after the line, just up from the walkway where the horses leave and re-enter the parade ring before and after the race. As the horses came back in, a few of the big, unfurnished two-year-olds were bearing saddles that had slipped back appreciably, none more so than Utley who, like the majority of the runners, was not wearing a breast-girth. I was standing with Julie Feilden and we both commented on this, both remarked that we nowadays run everything in either a breast-girth or a breast-plate, and both wondered aloud why so many trainers don't. Julie then went further, giving the opinion that they ought to be compulsory. I don't share this view because it would be too much like the nanny-state/police-state mentality which I abhor -but, at the same time, it is nowadays compulsory to have a bit in a horse's mouth whenever he or she is being led anywhere on a racecourse (another rule which gets up my nose) and, in my opinion, if one or other issue was going to be legislated on, I'd opt for breast-girths every time, because that's a far bigger danger and risk. Anyway, this got me thinking, and below run my lines of thought.

As you know, I don't think that breast-girths/-plates should be compulsory, but they should be compulsory under the current logic-less rule which says that jockeys no longer weigh out and in with them. Who's idea was this? Traditionally, everything which the horse carried, other than the basic and standard safety equipment which they all carry uniformly, was considered part of its burden. Thus the bridle is excluded; ditto the rider's crash helmet; ditto his body protector. Everything else would be part of the weight, ie jockey's clothing, saddle, girths, optional breast-girth, optional blinkers etc. A few years ago, breast-girths and blinkers were taken out of the load which is weighed. This makes no sense. I know why this rule-change was made: because, if a jockey was looking as if he might put up overweight, then a needed breast-girth might be left off so that he wouldn't put up overweight, and the jockey's and horse's safety might be compromised because of the fear of overweight. "Yes", you say, "That makes sense: we don't want trainers sending horses who need breast-girths out without them simply to avoid putting up overweight - safety is more important than that". Well, if you were to say that, you'd be wrong, because you wouldn't have thought the issue through, as clearly our overlords who changed the rule hadn't done.

In the old case, once in a blue moon a trainer might have to decide between wearing a breast-girth and putting up overweight, and thus imperil the safety of horse and rider. Nowadays, that choice isn't faced merely once in a blue moon, it is faced with EVERY SINGLE RUNNER. This overweight, of course, is undeclared overweight rather than official overweight, but it's still overweight - because if you want to use a breast-girth, you have to carry it in addition to the full quota of weight, rather than as part of that full quota. Why? Surely this is a bigger incentive - and certainly a much, much more frequent incentive - to dispense with breast-girths? We now have photo-finish cameras which can split horses to within a millimetre, so every gram carried by the horse counts. If we say that a breast-plate or -girth weighs a quarter of a pound, that could make the difference of up to a neck; even if it just weighed an ounce, that could mean the difference between winning and losing, with finishes being decided by such exact means. Many trainers, such as Mark Johnston, William Haggas, Julie and myself, feel that this is so important a safety issue that we are prepared to see every single runner we saddle carrying overweight - as this photograph of Dane O'Neill unsaddling Rhythm Stick in the dark and cold of Kempton on Wednesday night shows, with the breast-girth remaining on the horse while he collects the rest of his gear in preparation for heading for the scales. Many other trainers take the view that they'd rather risk a slipped saddle than a photo-finish defeat, and that's fair enough. But we shouldn't be faced with this dilemma. If a breast-girth is an essential piece of safety equipment, it should be compulsory and every horse should compete on level terms weight-wise; if it isn't (and the rules say that it isn't, because its use is voluntary) then it should be part of the weight a horse is allotted, rather than a penalty. We should not be penalized for trying to make our runners and their riders safer.

This might seem a very minor point, but it's certainly no academic exercise of theory rather than practice. The next time (and this will happen) you back a horse wearing a breast-girth beaten a short-head by a horse not wearing one, reflect that you have been robbed of a winner by the trainer's attempts to apply some basic common-sense health-and-safety best practice (and I know that that phrase is as repulsive as 'the Open Meeting', but I'm using it for effect) - while the next time (and this too will happen) that you back a horse not wearing a breast-girth whose saddle slips, reflect that you might have been robbed of backing a winner by the trainer's keenness to avoid losing a race by a short-head, keenness which has caused him to fly in the face of basic common-sense health-and-safety best practice (ditto). We shouldn't have to agonise over this choice because neither alternative is satisfactory - and if the rule was constructed logically, it would not be an either/or.

As I said previously, my own view is not that breast-girths should be made compulsory, but that they should be part of the weighed burden - but if they were to be made compulsory, much as the nanny-stateism of the legislation would annoy me, it would at least be an improvement on the dumb-ass rule which we have at the moment.


problemwalrus said...

Regarding the Cheltenham meeting since OPEN is part of golfing parlance I can only assume that the November meeting is so called because it enables horses to bridge the GOLF between last season and this. Unless of course they are feeling under par.

John Berry said...

Don't tell me that a little birdie told you that!

racingfan said...

Do you have many horses in for the winter aw and jumps campaigns?


racingfan said...

I totally agree with your view on william kennedy he is vastly under used, and in my opinion one of the best jump jockeys around especially in chases, I also think Dougie Costello is at the top of his game as well,

I used to be in diamond racing about 9 years ago, the jockey who rode the horse was Lisa Jones, who I thought was talented, do you know is she still riding overseas?

The horse I was involved in for a time was diamond orchid, of which gave me lots of enjoyment over a couple of years,

When I was in the syndicate you were training for them, do you think you may train again for them in future, or is that totally in the past?

Once again thanks for a brilliant blog and your views on at the races are very helpful, to a small interest punter like myself, who does it for an interest as a hobbie,


once again

John Berry said...

Thank you racingfan. We're always fairly quiet at this time of year but we have three Flat horses and three National Hunt (or potential National Hunt) horses in strong work at present.

I certainly remember Diamond Orchid. A big, rangey light grey filly, very genuine, won a few races. A daughter of Victory Note if my memory serves me correctly. I don't actually know if Lisa still race-rides; I suspect she doesn't any longer, although she did up to about a year or so ago. She's engaged to an Irish jockey called Wayne Smith who rides in Dubai during the season there and in Macau at other times. Lisa was race-riding in Dubai when they were first living there, but it's not really an environment where there are many openings for females, so I suspect that she probably just rides trackwork there now. She did extremely well when she first went to Macau, becoming one of the very few female jockeys anywhere in the world to ride a Derby winner by winning the Macau Derby about three or four years ago.

racingfan said...

thank you for taking the time to respond, You have a good memory, Orchid provided me with many great memories and she ran well to win 5 times I think, once over hurdles, Geoff Harker had her for her final race and the owner has bred from her as far as I know,

I met Lisa when she was riding orchid in her first race at ponte(finished 3rd), I think she was riding for you that night as well,

Good luck for the winter campaign, and as an enthusiast its great to be able read your blog and also follow the stable.

thanks again

Ian (racing fan)