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A weekend where riders crossed a line on three continents should ensure jockey safety and rules harmonisation is front of mind at this week’s meeting of International Federation of Horseracing Authorities in Paris.
Christophe Soumillon walked out of the Saint-Cloud stewards’ room last Friday with a lenient 60-day suspension for elbowing Rossa Ryan off his horse during the Prix Thomas Bryon, but while that seemed a fortunate outcome for the champion rider, his reputation now carries a stain that will be difficult to wipe away.
He may yet lose his retainer with the Aga Khan and his ban has already ruled him out of the Breeders’ Cup and an autumn stint in Japan; the backlash he has received will surely make the JRA think long and hard when it considers a future invitation.
The same can be said about any contract with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, particularly after the HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges on Monday opened the International Conference of Horseracing Authorities with ‘human welfare’ prominent in the IFHA’s (International Federation of Horseracing Authorities) ‘key strategic areas of focus’.
Human safety must be paramount. Being a jockey is one of the most dangerous professions in the world. A study of Australian stewards’ reports covering 75,000 races, conducted between August 2002 and July 2006, found that, statistically, in one of every 22 races a jockey somewhere in Australia fell from their mount; the same report found that from those races, 861 serious injuries were sustained and five jockeys – all on the flat – died.
At the time the report was published, in 2009, a jockey had a higher risk of fatality than any other job bar those in the offshore fishing industry. Those dangers are a major factor in why and how stewards police races; it is why when a jockey crosses the line of acceptable risk and appropriate aggression, and veers into the territory of putting another jockey in mortal danger, they come down hard: or they should.
Most media pundits, and jockeys former and present, took the view that two months was a soft penalty for Soumillon. “It was like pushing somebody out of a moving car,” said a Sha Tin-based jockey on Saturday, speaking off the record.
One voice dissenting from the majority line was Ruby Walsh, former champion jump jockey turned media go-to and a prominent face on ITV Racing in Britain; he said it was simply “a racing manoeuvre and Christophe did not get it right” and added that “contact is part of every sport.”
Walsh’s take is an odd one. Of course, any elite athlete has aggression, a desire to win and a toughness that can dish out and accept some physicality, but that does not and should not extend to a ‘manoeuvre’ that actively pushed as far beyond the acceptable as Soumillon did.
But, on a strange weekend of jockey aggression, the Belgian’s elbow on Ryan, that sent the Irishman somersaulting sickeningly, was not even an isolated incident. Incredibly, Soumillon’s elbow was outranked on the dangerous scale when Joffre Mora shoved Luis Hurtado off his horse on the turn towards home in the Ecuador Derby; and then there was the forceful Sonny Leon lean into Tyler Gaffalione at the climax of the G2 Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs and his dubious defence that the saddle slipped.
Three contacts, all similar yet with differences; three degrees of severity; and three varying official punishments on three continents within a couple of days.
Leon, a serial careless riding offender in the past year – including four days for ‘deliberately and aggressively’ steering his mount to the rail to block other horses at Thistledown in April – was given a 15-day suspension for his latest aggression; Soumillon, of course, got two months; Mora was banned for life.
El Jockey Joffre Mora fue suspendido de por vida en el Derby de Ecuador. El jinete de Il Contadino, favorito de la prueba, empujó al peruano Luis Hurtado haciéndole caer a 700m de la meta. pic.twitter.com/YHsz1raNgT
— Black Type (@black_type_tv) September 29, 2022
Soumillon has known controversy before but the Belgian rider has never known such a backlash as he received across media – mainstream and social – after he thrust his elbow into Ryan.
The clamour for him to be prevented from riding at Longchamp that weekend was misplaced, given that France-Galop’s rules – set to be reviewed – had no provision for such an intervention. But had Soumillon and Vadeni won the Arc rather than placed second, the post-race reception doubtless would have been sour.
Similarly, calls on social media for a life ban, as per Mora, were over the top; a reactionary demand in line with mob thinking that has become such a feature of the online space. But 60 days was insulting to Ryan and every other jockey that puts their life on the line every time they climb aboard a horse for the enjoyment and gratification of those watching and betting.
When Kieren Fallon pulled Stuart Webster from his mount at Beverley in 1994, he was handed a six-month ban, and that happened after the race when the horses were virtually at a stop. At a lesser end of the scale, Hong Kong stewards handed Maxime Guyon a one-month suspension for striking Keith Yeung with his whip during a race in January 2012.
If those are the bar-setters, then Soumillon surely could have expected anything from nine months to a year on the sidelines for executing a far more dangerous act of aggression, one that Ryan was blessed to have escaped without injury.
But the bar evidently is moveable, depending on location: there is a gaping gulf between life for Mora and 60 days for Soumillon, given that both made firm contact with a fellow rider with enough force to push them off their mounts.
Alpinista and Luke Morris fend off Vedeni and Christophe Soumillon to win the Arc. (Photo by Horsephotos/Getty Images)
That is another one for the IFHA meeting to consider as rules harmonisation is also a key area of focus at this week’s gathering, and full rules harmony between racing’s jurisdictions globally cannot come soon enough given the sport’s international nature. A Formula 1 driver does not compete under one set of rules at Monza and another set of rules when he turns up to race in Monte Carlo; that jockeys still must is ludicrous when a top rider like Ryan Moore could feasibly ride in three countries in as many days.
As for Soumillon, he is a brilliant rider whose talents will be missed during his time out but that is a very small price for the sport to pay. Anyone can make an error and anyone, for the most part, deserves the opportunity to come back from a mistake, but a tougher sanction would have been more palatable in this instance.
Anyone who has watched in close proximity a jockey pitched to the ground at 35 mph has seen in that moment the fragility of their existence. It is only ever awful to witness. Respect for all competitors is necessary – would Soumillon have tried the same ‘manoeuvre’ on Frankie Dettori? – and a degree of trust, whether conscious or not, must exist; trust that the jockey beside them will play within the code that keeps everyone out there on the track as safe as possible.
Soumillon has broken that trust. A stiffer punishment was needed from the stewards, to fit the act and to act as deterrent, to reduce the likelihood of any other jockey being put in such avoidable danger by one of their own.
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