Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fair go

Great Yarmouth resumed racing today after its self-imposed absence, and it was lovely that we had a runner at our much-liked local course's re-opening day.  That was Indira (pictured here after the race. and in the second photograph after her work yesterday - while the other photographs are also from yesterday morning, with two photos showing So Much Water and one showing Tommy / Platinum Proof).  She, like Yarmouth, also resumed racing today, in her case after an only-slightly-shorter absence (323 days).  She didn't cut much ice, but (as there generally is) there was a silver lining to that cloud, because it means that no readers of this blog can feel that they were 'put away', my having omitted to mention in previous dispatches that she was running.  So there we are: she ran, she only beat one, but even so it's good to have got her racing again after a lengthy absence.

I didn't mention previously that she was running, but I did mention that I would bore on about the interference rules.  However, I've rather lost interest in that.  Basically, after Secret Gesture was demoted in the Beverly D Stakes, we had much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the supposedly unsporting play by Irad Ortiz.  But, basically, his actions are only the natural consequence of the US rules (ie that one's chances of being promoted are boosted if one can over-egg the pudding of one's interference) in the same way that British-based jockeys' actions (eg Jamie Spencer failing to keep Secret Gesture straight) are merely the natural consequence of the British rules.

The British rules say that the first past the post is very unlikely to be demoted (and even less likely to be disqualified) so that if a jockey lets his horse wander around, thus intimidating or impeding his rivals, he improves his chances of being declared the winner (ie he improves his chances of passing the first without running any significant risk of being demoted or disqualified).  So the American culture of play-acting (which used to prevail here until the late '80s, when a press campaign prompted the Jockey Club to change the rules so that causing interference was much less likely to see the first-past-the-post demoted or disqualified) is no different to the British culture of causing interference.  Both are the product of the rules of the country. The only difference is that the yankee habit is 'unsporting' while the British habit is dangerous.

And if you query whether the general habit of letting one's mount drift off a true line (or, often, encouraging one's mount to drift off a true line) is dangerous, just watch the Park Hill Stakes of a couple of years ago, when the horse in front of Seal Of Approval drifted slightly off a straight line, and Seal Of Approval clipped her heels, giving Hayley Turner as frightening a fall as you'll ever see.  (And, in case you think that jockeys have no control over whether or not their mounts run straight, it's worth recalling Bill O'Gorman's observation that making a horse run in a straight line is not a difficult skill to master, bearing in mind that Lester Piggott mastered it at the age of 12, Edward Hide at the age of 11, and Frank Wootton at the age of 10).

So that just about covers that.  And bringing Hayley (who rode a winner today in Japan, I believe) into it works rather nicely, especially as she ranks alongside Ryan Moore as one of the many jockeys who have suffered serious injury in a stalls mishap (although hers, unlike Ryan's, occurred where the majority of them occur, ie in a homework practice session).  And Hayley also brings us on to another subject which we ought to cover: that of female jockeys and their supposed shunning by British racing.  This was brought into focus at the Shergar Cup, which the female jockeys' team won and at which Sammy-Jo Bell won the Silver Saddle.  The most sensible comment was made by Sammy-Jo, but it was generally ignored: when quizzed about the supposed bias against female riders which sees them only rarely riding in Group One races, she correctly pointed out that this is not only a female jockeys' problem: there are many very good male jockeys who never ride in Group One races.

The reason why I have come to this is that I do get annoyed by the refrain that British racing is so chauvinist that it doesn't give female jockeys a chance. This is nonsense, and last week's Doncaster Premier Yearling Sale gives us the clue.  This is not held to be the high-rollers' sale, but is the sale at which the ordinary owner (if there is such a thing, which there isn't) tries to buy his professional racehorse.  And what do the statistics tell us about how big an impact these ordinary owners make?  Well, of the top 15 lots in the sale, 14 were bought by Arab owners and one was bought by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.  At the high-rollers' sale, this situation will be even more extreme, if that is possible.  And we should also remember that the top tier of the crop doesn't go to the sale, because is bred by the Arabs' broodmare bands and is retained by the breeders.

And what is the connection to female riders?  Well, the fact that it is very, very rare to see an Arab-owned horse ridden by a female jockey.  Hayley rode Dream Ahead to win the July Cup in 2011, but that was only because the many male jockeys ahead of her in the queue were unavailable; and she never rode the horse again.  But apart from that?  When was the last time you saw an Arab-owned horse ridden by a female jockey?  One sometimes sees one or other of Khalifa Dasmal's other David Simcock-trained horses ridden by a female rider, but otherwise I can't think of a more recent example, although no doubt there has been one.  Or even two.

The gist of this is that, as trainer or jockey, to make any significant impact at the top end of the sport, one has to be training or riding for international owners.  There are many good trainers around the country who are never going to make any regular impact at the higher levels because they don't train for the handful of major investors, and there are many good jockeys around the country who are never going to make any regular impact at the higher levels because they don't ride for the major investors. And female jockeys are particularly vulnerable in this respect, simply because it is very rare for an Arab-owned horse to be ridden by a female jockey.

But, as Sammy-Jo Bell pointed out at Ascot and as I am pointing out here, it is not only female jockeys whose skill largely goes unrewarded.  Just as with trainers, there are many good jockeys out there, male and female, and only a handful are recognised as successful.  If we think that Hayley is struggling, what about the apprentice with whom she tied for the apprentices' championship a few years ago, Saleem Golam?  What about another recent champion apprentice, Stevie Donohoe?  What about John Fahy, Royston Ffrench, Jason Hart, Nicky Mackay, Kieran O'Neill, James Sullivan, Robert Tart, Dale Swift, Simon Pearce or Connor Beasley?

That's just a fact of life: it's a competitive sport, and only a handful can make it to the very top, whether one is talking about jockeys or trainers.  But to use this, as some members of the press have been doing, to portray British racing as a chauvinist sport is nonsense.  Go around the smaller tracks, where the smaller owners and smaller trainers operate, and you'll find that there are plenty of female jockeys and female apprentices being given a chance.  The fact that it is rare to see an Arab-owned horse ridden by a female jockey or female apprentice should not be used as an excuse to paint the bulk of us as chauvinists, notwithstanding that few of the best horses are owned by domestic owners or trained by the people who train only for such owners.

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