Lester Piggott was famous for pinching other jockeys’ rides. He used his friendship with owner Ivan Allan to have Luca Cumani’s regular rider Darrel McHargue ‘jocked off’ Commanche Run in the 1984 St Leger. The disgusted McHargue said that he would spend the day playing tennis rather than watch the race, which duly supplied Piggott with his 28th Classic victory. Asked on Leger morning if rain would spoil Commanche Run’s chances, Lester replied coolly: ‘No, but it will ruin McHargue’s tennis.’ Piggott is famously a man of few words but he can make them tell. Former jockey Dean McKeown told me once of riding 33-1 shot Miss Merlin at Windsor as an apprentice. The stable money was down and they passed the post in front, never having seen another horse. He was amazed to hear that Lester, who had finished second, had objected with a bizarre claim that his horse had been ‘frightened out of racing’ as McKeown’s mount had drifted. The stewards awarded the race to Piggott’s mount. Afterwards the champion jockey told the 7lb-claimer: ‘You learned something today, son. Bullshit beats brains!’
I was reminded of that tale as I watched ITV’s live coverage of last Saturday’s stewards’ inquiry at Newbury into the finish of the Unibet You’re On Handicap over a mile. Drifting sharply right as he tired towards the end of the race, the leader Overwrite, ridden by David Probert, had cut across Tempus, ridden by Jason Watson, who had to snatch up his mount sharply to avoid a dangerous clash. Tempus and Watson, who still managed to get within a head of Overwrite at the line, were rightly awarded the race.
Years back, when I started racing, stewards were mostly ex-military men who expected to be called Sir and addressed riders by their surname. Former jump-racing champion John Francome, never one to be overawed by authority, led the charge against that. When the stipe (stipendiary steward) said to him, ‘Francome, the stewards want you’, he replied: ‘If you are feeling friendly you can call me “John”. If you are not, you can call me “Mr Francome”.’ And within months of that exchange, the Jockey Club ordered officials to address jockeys as ‘Mr’, as they did when asking jockeys to make their cases before Newbury’s stewards last Saturday. Mutual courtesy in place of kowtowing, and the transparency of having cameras admitted to such disciplinary proceedings, have marked real progress. No longer can senior riders with powerful connections expect to lord it over lesser fry, although when your horse has become involved in stewards’ room deliberations you do still pray that the trainer has employed a jockey who can talk as well as ride. The sparky Geoff Lewis, rider of Mill Reef, had a fine singing voice but a short fuse and a bad stutter. The trick, if you were in a stewards’ room altercation with him, was to make such an outrageous claim about Lewis’s tactics that he became incoherent with rage and was literally lost for words when it came to his turn. ‘Case dismissed, Lewis.’
Penalties for interference in races are currently at the forefront of racing talk. John Gosden’s respected No. 2 rider Rab Havlin was recently suspended for ten days by Yarmouth stewards for what was deemed to be careless riding. He took his case to the independent disciplinary appeal and his ban was not just cut but scrapped altogether, leading some authoritative figures to demand tougher sentences to prevent a growing danger of unsafe riding. Brant Dunshea, the BHA’s chief regulatory officer, has complained that the majority of suspensions taken to the independent panel are being overturned and that, while arguing that current rules are a sufficient deterrent to unsafe riding, the success rate of appeals has created a ‘challenging’ environment for the stewards.
Stepping gingerly into this particular minefield, I would make three points. One is that horses are not machines and they sometimes take decisions for themselves, leaving riders only split seconds in which to take appropriate action. Two: Britain’s jockeys are top quality but the job requires a deep competitive instinct. Looking for a gap, most of them will on occasion cross the fine line of punishable ‘carelessness’ but pretty well all agree that the authorities should throw the book at any of their number causing a fall by dangerous riding. Three: the Professional Jockeys Association only supports taking cases to the independent panel when they feel there are strong grounds for mitigation of the original racecourse sentence.
Perhaps the most sensible contribution to the rules debate came from current champion jockey Oisin Murphy last October as he clinched his first title: ‘I’ve realised that allowing a horse to drift or hitting one once more to win me a race will get me suspended. The minimum suspension for the whip or interference is two days, so I could miss the ride on eight fancied horses. I’ve had that on my mind and as a result I’ve been suspension-free all year. That’s been the no. 1 thing.’ In becoming champion, he meant.
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