Donn's Articles » Jockeys’ suspensions

Jockeys’ suspensions

Frankie Dettori returned to race-riding at Newmarket on Friday with victory on Gamilati in the Group 2 Cherry Hinton Stakes and a flying dismount.

Dettori’s flying dismounts had been absent from the racecourse for 19 days, all 19 enforced by the authorities: nine for trying too hard on Rewilding in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot, 10 for taking it too easy on Blue Bunting in the Epsom Oaks. It meant that racegoers were deprived of the Italian’s crowd-pleasing antics for a significant chunk of the early-season scrimmages as he served his suspension, which spanned the final two days of Royal Ascot, the Irish Derby, the Eclipse and the first day of Newmarket’s high-profile July meeting.

There were those who claimed that the racing authorities hadn’t thought this through, that the rule-enforcers were shooting the marketing people in the feet, that Dettori is one of the greatest assets that racing has ever had, and that his presence on the racecourse should be leveraged more, not curtailed. And it is true, there was a Hamlet-without-the-Prince feel about the last two days of Royal Ascot after Dettori had taken his ball and gone home on Thursday night.

That said, of course you couldn’t have given Dettori a Royal Ascot pardon, irrespective of his synonymy with the place or with the meeting. He is obviously governed by the rules. It is the same across all walks of sport: regardless of your ability or your marketability, you break the rules, you suffer the consequences.

But what about those rules?

It is difficult to argue with the ban that Dettori picked up for his ride on Blue Bunting in the Oaks. That was one of those races in which just about everything went wrong for the jockey. He was too far back in the field by the time it transpired that the pace was going to be funereal. He made his ground when he could, but too late and only into third place by the time they got to within 100 yards of the line. Then he eased his filly home, only for her to be nutted on the line for third place by Izzi Top.

It obviously wasn’t deliberate, Dettori didn’t trade third place for fourth place because he wanted to, but more because he was probably disgusted with the way the race had panned out, and he stopped riding, knowing he couldn’t win, 50 yards too early. In fact, there was an argument for meting out an even more severe suspension, as the fact that he gave Ryan Moore and Havant a hefty bump at the top of the home straight appeared to have been ignored by the stewards.

Bans imposed on riders for easing up early and losing victory or a place as a result are stringent. It happens though. It’s the culture in Europe, ease up just before the line, give your horse as easy a race as possible. As long as that is the culture, riders will get caught out. Kieren Fallon missed out on riding in the 2000 Guineas this year because he eased up early and lost second place in a £1,700 handicap at Kempton two weeks earlier.

In Australia, jockeys have to ride out to the line, regardless of how far clear they are. Such a directive here, which would compel riders to at least push their horses out until they reached the winning post, would significantly reduce or completely eradicate these instances here.

The whip ban imposed on Dettori for his ride on Rewilding is a little more emotive. Whips, and their usage in horse racing, have been the subject of debate for as long as they have been in use, but the debate has raged since this year’s Grand National in April.

The authorities’ main concern appears to be about aesthetics, that it doesn’t look good to see a horse being whipped by a jockey. Even the name of the thing (whip) doesn’t sound good. There have been weighty calls for the abolishment of the whip in racing completely, and that one is still not off the table, despite jockeys’ assertion that it would be dangerous to get up on a horse without one.

Whips have been modified through the years to the point where the one that is currently in usage is, to quote Dettori, “a hollow object made of foam”. Common consensus is that it couldn’t hurt a human, not to mind a half a ton of horse. Yet, even with the modified whip, rules on its usage are tighter than ever. So now jockeys are faced with a situation in which they have a less effective instrument than before, with its usage restricted more than ever.

The other issue concerns penalties imposed for mis-use. As things stand, if a winning rider is found guilty of excessive frequency or excessive force, he or she is banned but the horse is allowed to keep the race. It is a situation of disequilibrium. It means that, at the bigger meetings, in the feature races, the downside of breaking the rules is not as great as the upside of winning.

In an interview with the Racing Post published on Wednesday, Dettori said: “We are talking huge valuations of future stallions in a multi-million-pound industry. What would have happened if I had got beat on Rewilding and come back and said, ‘Sir, if I’d given him one more (crack of the whip) I would have won’?” It is no coincidence that, at Royal Ascot, as well as Dettori, other top riders Wayne Lordan, Kevin Manning, Nicky Mackay, Eddie Ahern and Jamie Spencer were also banned after riding the winners of high profile races.

The thinking appears to be, why should the owner or the trainer or the punters be penalised because of a jockey’s misdemeanour? It doesn’t make sense. The question should be, why should the jockey of the runner-up be penalised for abiding by the rules?

Applying the current rule as it stands to the world of football, if a player deliberately handled the ball and scored, the player would be suspended, but the goal would be allowed to stand.

© The Sunday Times, 10th July 2011