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Team tactics verdict

Thursday’s verdict by a BHA disciplinary panel that Aidan O’Brien, Johnny Murtagh and Colm O’Donoghue had contravened the rules of racing in last month’s Juddmonte International was about as surprising as a bark from a dog, given the process that had led to the hearing. However, its predictability did nothing to decrease the magnitude of its irrationality.

The trainer was fined £5,000, the jockeys were both suspended for seven days; O’Brien and O’Donoghue, who rode Red Rock Canyon in the race, were found guilty of breaching Rule 153 (iv), the one relating to team tactics that has received such an airing over the last four weeks, while Murtagh, who rode the winner Duke Of Marmalade, was charged under Rule 220 (iii) of acting in a manner that was “prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horse racing in Great Britain.”

That was the crescendo, the climax of the narrative whose elements had become progressively outlandish as the saga developed.

The Newmarket stewards on the day did not feel that there was any contravention of the rules of racing by Team Ballydoyle. On the contrary, they suspended Ted Durcan, who rode the runner-up in the race, Phoenix Tower, for two days for causing interference to Red Rock Canyon on his way through to challenge Duke Of Marmalade. Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager to Prince Khalid Abdulla, owner of Phoenix Tower, expressed himself happy with the way in which the race had been run.

It was only in the aftermath of the race, pursuant to comments made by Murtagh immediately after the race, and to calls for an inquiry in the media in the ensuing days, that the BHA decided to act, and even at that it took them 10 days to do so. Surely this is not the proper order of things.

Also, when the disciplinary hearing was called, only O’Brien and O’Donoghue were asked to attend. More media commentary, another re-think by the BHA, cue a perusal of the rule book and the request three weeks later that Murtagh also appear at the hearing under Rule 220, the catch-all rule. Trial by media? Perhaps not. Instigation and determination of trial format by media? Probably.

To be found guilty of engaging in an action that was “prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horse racing in Great Britain” is a significant blemish to have on your CV, and Murtagh has every right to feel seriously aggrieved, particularly when it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what he did that was in breach of the rule. Ironically, there are few people who have done more to promote the good reputation of horse racing this season than Johnny Murtagh.

O’Brien should also feel extremely hard done-by. “I’m paranoid that people would even suggest that we might cheat,” he told the disciplinary hearing on Thursday. “After the fuss about the race at Ascot, I would prefer to lose a race than to win it unfairly. I’ve gone so paranoid about it I have probably told my jockeys a hundred times that there is to be no interference or no trouble to anybody.”

It is difficult to fathom how exactly the trainer was in breach of the rule on team tactics.

“You did not give adequate and clear instructions to your jockeys,” Tim Charlton, head of the disciplinary panel told O’Brien.

So how many times does he have to tell them? How many is adequate? Two hundred? A thousand? This is the verdict, sir, and this is how we will arrive at it.

The race at Ascot to which O’Brien referred was the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, run exactly two years ago yesterday, in which Frankie Dettori accused Seamie Heffernan, riding Ivan Denisovich, of deliberately carrying him and Librettist wide into the straight in order to enhance George Washington’s chance of winning the race. The accusations were unsustainable, but the genesis of the rule on team tactics can be traced to that day.

However, the cobbled together Rule 154 (iv) appears to contradict itself in stating that: “A rider shall not make a manoeuvre in a race in the interests of another horse in common ownership … whether or not such a manoeuvre caused interference … For the avoidance of doubt, this rule does not prohibit pacemaking as such.”

What is pacemaking if it is not a manoeuvre in the interests of another horse in common ownership?

The whole area of pacemaking is a grey one under the rules of racing, but it works in practice. Try to legislate for it in black and white, and you really only have two options: condone it or prohibit it. The BHA might realise this now.

There is a rule on team tactics in France, but it is in place primarily for betting purposes given the fact that horses in the same ownership are coupled on the PMU. There is no such rule in Ireland, nor are there plans to introduce one, and you have to question the need for one in the UK, especially when the precise wording is apparently so difficult to draft.

There is every chance that Aidan O’Brien will train more Group 1 winners this season than any trainer ever has in the history of horse racing. It would be a real shame if this incident were to cast even a semblance of a shadow on that feat. The BHA have, wittingly or unwittingly but wholly unnecessarily, placed this issue, barely a bit-part player, centre stage. Who, then, has really engaged in an action that has been prejudicial to the good reputation of horse racing? And who hears the Pope’s confession?

© The Sunday Times, 27th September 2008