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St Leger appeal

In truth, nobody knew how last Wednesday’s appeal into the result of the St Leger would go.

On the day of the race 11 days previously, the stewards at Doncaster had demoted the horse who passed the post first, Simple Verse, and placed her second, thereby awarding the race to the Aidan O’Brien-trained Bondi Beach, who had passed the winning post second, a head behind Simple Verse. On the day, Simple Verse’s trainer Ralph Beckett said that they would appeal, and they did. That appeal was heard in the British Horseracing Authority’s headquarters on Wednesday.

In the lead up to the appeal, one of the major bookmakers, Coral, opened a book on the outcome. Initially they bet 5/6 Simple Verse getting the race back, 5/6 Bondi Beach keeping it. A weight of money for Bondi Beach meant that the bookmaker changed the odds to 4/7 Bondi Beach, 5/4 Simple Verse, before more money for the incumbent forced them to stop betting on the outcome altogether.

Even so, the Simple Verse team were more than hopeful. Beckett said afterwards that his QC Graeme McPherson told him beforehand that it looked around 60-40 in their favour.

So after a three-hour hearing on Wednesday, the BHA disciplinary panel ordered that the result be amended again, that Simple Verse be awarded the race and that Bondi Beach be placed second.

Rewind 11 days to 12th September, the Ladbrokes St Leger at Doncaster. There were two significant incidents between the two horses as they dueled in the closing stages of the final Classic: one at the two-furlong pole, the other inside the final furlong. The stewards on the day concluded that both incidents were caused by Simple Verse, and that, on the balance of probability, both incidents together cost Bondi Beach more than the head by which he was beaten.

On Wednesday, the disciplinary panel disagreed. They concluded that they were not persuaded that the first incident improved Simple Verse’s position, and that the second incident had little or no effect.

This is not black and white. You can argue both sides, as riders Colm O’Donoghue and Andrea Atzeni did in the stewards’ inquiry on the day of the race, and as both sets of connections did on Wednesday.

Rule 54.5 in the British rule book essentially says that, if a horse or rider has caused interference by careless or improper riding, and if the stewards are satisfied that the interference improved the placing of the horse relative to the horse with which it interfered, then that horse will be placed behind the horse with which it interfered.

That all seems fairly straightforward, it all seems to make sense, except when it comes to the interpretation. The difficulty lies in determining whether or not the interference caused has improved a horse’s placing.

There are no certainties here, just degrees of probability. You cannot know for certain how a race would have panned out if something different had happened during the race.

The Simple Verse team argued on Wednesday that Bondi Beach had enough time after the incident at the two-furlong pole to get past the filly if he had been good enough. The Bondi Beach team argued that the incident cost the runner-up more than the head by which he was beaten. Both cases have merit.

The rules are different in France and in America. In those racing jurisdictions, if you cause interference, except in exceptional circumstances, you are thrown out. On Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe weekend last year at Longchamp, the biggest weekend on France’s racing calendar, there were two high-profile disqualifications, Cirrus Des Aigles and Gleneagles.

It is never ideal when a horse is disqualified, there is always a sense that the best horse in the race has not gone home with the prize. The French and American models can be extreme. There is no doubt, for example, that Gleneagles was the best horse in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere last year, and the fact that he was demoted to third place does not sit squarely. But there is certainty. Jockeys know where they stand and they ride accordingly. Immediately after those two races on Arc weekend last year, even before a stewards’ inquiry was called, common consensus was that the winners were in trouble.

Britain seems to have moved to the other extreme in recent times. It is rare that a horse is disqualified these days. It appears that you have to cause significant interference and win by a short margin in order for the stewards to throw you out.

There have been many recent examples: Storm The Stars and Bondi Beach in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York last month, Mr Lupton and Humphrey Bogart in the Weatherbys two-year-old stakes at Doncaster two weeks ago, Realtra in the Sceptre Stakes on the same day. The stewards inquired into the running of each race, but left the placings unaltered.

In one sense, there is certainty in Britain too, in that jockeys know that they are relatively safe unless they cause significant interference. The difficulty, however, is that the current situation is fostering a win-at-all-costs mentality that can border on dangerous on occasion. Get to the winning line first, by whatever means you deem to be necessary, and it is unlikely that you will lose the race in the stewards’ room.

Also, as things stand, the burden of proof rests on the injured party. Common practice, the manner in which the rules are currently being interpreted, tells you that the stewards have to be virtually certain that the runner-up would have won had the interference not occurred before they will throw out the horse that passed the post first.

The balance of probability currently goes with the perpetrator, not with the victim, and Wednesday’s decision only served to strengthen that situation.

© The Sunday Times, 27th September 2015