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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

Are our riders pushing too hard

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

Outward perception of racing is of a genteel sport where fair play is standard practice and where the participants are civil to each other - even friends - in what amounts to a small community in each country where competitors sit beside each other in the Weighing room, or saddle alongside each other in the saddling boxes.

But the sport is a high-octane environment where large sums of money trade hands for the best bloodstock, where reputations are won and lost on the racecourse, and where injury is ever-present, both to horse and human. If it doesn't read quite like a Dick Francis novel, nor is it all sweetness and light either.

Last week's incident involving Christophe Soumillon is the latest example of a sport where archly competitive racing is reaching extremes, and whilst every turf authority across the globe is pursuing ambitions for higher and higher prize money, this sort of incident is going to become more commonplace without tougher regulation.

French authorities acted with dismay when they discovered that their own rules could not sanction the suspension of Soumillon before France's showcase event last Sunday, and there will have been sighs of relief that Alpinista held off the Aga Khan's horse under a sustained challenge under Soumillon.

To his credit, the French rider has shown contrition, not least as the impact of losing one of French racing's most coveted roles has been fully exposed to him. But there is no hiding the fact that the terse statement announcing the cessation of his retainer is a barely masked indictment of poor sportsmanship, unbecoming to the sport.

In recent years, there have been other high profile bust-ups, each of which tends to bring racing to the front pages in a way that no amount of good news ever will.

In December 2021, British jump jockey Robbie Dunne was banned for 18 months, subsequently reduced to 10 months on appeal, for consistent bullying of fellow rider Bryony Frost. Over several months, from February to September of 2020, Dunne was found to have intimidated Frost both in the manner of his race-riding and in comments after races. BHA's disciplinary panel found Dunne's behaviour prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct and good reputation of racing.

This was a very public refutation of the so-called "band of brothers" cameraderie that has been a mainstay of the jump jockeys weighing room for decades, and produced a great deal of soul-searching among leading riders, on whose shoulders it has generally fallen to maintain relations in the weighing room holy of holies.

A scuffle between Jim Crowley and Raul da Silva in the changing room at Goodwood in June 2018 made headlines after a heated exchange which led to a cut lip, and superficial facial injuries to Crowley. Da Silva was stood down for 21 days.

Champion rider Kieron Fallon produced perhaps the most dramatic intervention in 1994 when hauling fellow rider Stuart Webster out of the saddle when pulling up after a race at Beverley in September. Fallon, not one able to keep away from trouble for long, was given a 6 month suspension by the BHA.

Lest one be led to think this is solely a northern European problem, think again. Hotheads in the USA and central American jurisdictions have also been scrutinized by their respective turf authorities and been found wanting.

The tendency of media to report spectacular fisticuffs or split-second incidents in races might justifiably lead one to believe these are occurring with greater frequency. But is this really the case? That there is more racing and that it is more available to view is indisputable. These incidents, probably played out to more limited audiences in an age before worldwide race streaming, have always been there. they've just been made more visible.

More probable is that the growth in racing is leading to more opportunity for altercations in what is essentially a series of split-second decisions: do I go for the gap? if I don't get a racing line now, I never will. Few of these decisions are made with deliberate intent to harm a fellow rider, but their impact can be long-lived as Freddie Tylicki would testify.

Remember, the weighing room is a fiercely competitive environment, where a strong hierarchical structure exists naturally. Challengers to that hierarchy are likely to find some resistance. This is how champions retain their place at the head of the tribe.

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