Finding itself in a PR hole, racing’s ruling body opted to keep digging on Sunday in response to the row caused by the decision of its stewards to fine the trainer Henry Oliver for encouraging one of his horses forward at the start. Oliver was fined £140 for his misdemeanour, a sum which he suggested would make little difference to either his finances or those of the British Horseracing Authority, but the fact that he was punished at all provoked outrage among his fellow racing professionals.
Most prominent among the protesters was Sir Anthony McCoy, who announced his intention to block the Twitter feed that relays all the stewards decisions in response to what the 20-times champion jockey called “such stupidity … such embarrassing rubbish”. McCoy continued: “How can our sport have such appalling decision-makers in charge?”
Oliver had been about five yards behind the six runners as they lined up for a handicap chase at Uttoxeter on Saturday and briefly waved his arms as they approached the start-tape because his runner, Burrenbridge Hotel, appeared reluctant to set off. The eight-year-old consented to race but was clearly struggling after a circuit and was eventually pulled up.
The decision to fine Oliver for such a minor intervention was roundly mocked on social media, so that the BHA evidently felt the need to justify its rule, which says: “Under no circumstances will the trainer be allowed to encourage his horse, physically, verbally or using any other means to jump off”. But rather than simply insisting on the right of its officials to have sole control over the start, the BHA’s statement muddied the waters. “We set a lot of store in our sport behind the fact that we do not force horses to race and that they do so of their own free will,” the statement said.
The suggestion that each racehorse’s free will must be respected is a new one and hard to square with the daily reality of saddled, bridled animals being encouraged forward by jockeys carrying whips. The BHA also found itself having to distinguish between trainers leading their horses towards the start, which is allowed, and waving their arms behind them, which is not.
It would matter less if racing was otherwise at peace with itself but such is not the case, as many trainers feel the ruling body lacks “horse sense” in reaching some of its decisions and is generally out of touch with the challenges they face. Only last week, the introduction of a new rule requiring all horses to be fully shod when racing was postponed to allow for further research, at least one trainer having threatened to contravene it.
There were also suggestions of inadequate consultation by the BHA when it published its review of safety at Cheltenham last month, when jockeys’ representatives said the ruling body had ignored evidence in reaching some if its recommendations.
Nicky Henderson, the reigning champion trainer, told the Racing Post on Sunday: “The BHA is baffling at the moment, coming out with more and more bizarre instructions. I despair.” Oliver said he felt a quiet word from the stewards might have been more appropriate than the more heavy handed fine. “I could understand if I’d got in the way of the starters, but the starters were grand about it all. I think the stewards wanted to make an example of me.
“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to work together, we all want the sport to do well. It’s no good for the people who’ve backed my horse if he plants himself and I do nothing about it.”