SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER //
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX
The upcoming Asian Racing Conference in Melbourne is the perfect place for jurisdictions to find common ground on one of racing’s most contentious issues.
Logical as it may seem to some, the decision by Racing Victoria stewards to uphold a ‘whip protest’ opened up a can of worms that could have international ramifications and highlights the need for ‘rules harmonisation’ between jurisdictions.
When Invincible Caviar and My Yankee Girl dead-heated at Flemington last Saturday and stewards subsequently upheld their own protest against My Yankee Girl due to what was termed a ‘gross breach’ of the whip rules by jockey Blake Shinn, it was only the second time in Australian racing history and first since 2016 that it had happened.
The previous instance occurred at Sunshine Coast but Saturday’s was on a major metropolitan track and the decision, logical as it may be, failed to create a clear precedent for future cases and has left more questions than answers, as well as uncertainty for punters.
Even the RV chief steward Robert Cram’s line that there was ‘No change of policy, no change of direction by the stewards,’ and that the panel would treat ‘each case (considered) on its merits,’ provided too little understanding of how stewards will come to clear and fair decisions in the future.
The difficulty at the core of judging whip protests is quantifying how much of an effect the use of the whip has. In this case it isn’t difficult to understand the logic applied to upholding a whip protest in the case of a dead heat, in which any advantaged gain, no matter how much, would change the result.
The explanation by Cram, that it was a ‘gross breach’ and that the fact it was a dead-heat, not just a narrow margin, formed part of the panel’s reasoning. The dead-heat factor takes away some of the uncertainty Cram referred to, but there is still a judgment call to be made: how many excessive hits before the 100 metre mark is enough to change the result? One? Ten? Shinn’s 12, five above the allowed seven, was considered enough.
This decision came on a sleepy summer Saturday, and it was the well-supported favourite granted the win, but what if it was a Melbourne Cup? Shinn won his first Melbourne Cup in 2008 by a nose on Viewed after similarly vigorous use of the persuader (19 strikes before the 100m for those who can count fast enough). That might not seem long ago but it was a different age as far as the debate surrounding animal welfare is concerned.
Regardless, getting into the ‘how many hits’ part of the debate just shows how messy this all can be and why consistency and clarity is required to gain the confidence of punters.
Those punters are not just in Australia. Over the last decade, and especially the last few years, the Hong Kong Jockey Club have been adding more simulcast races for its customers to bet on.
From 2013, the club has allowed international partners to bet into its massive tote pools, but in 2019 this practice was expanded to commingled pools on international races and branded ‘World Pool’.
It can be a lucrative exercise for the jurisdiction hosting the race – HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges recently pointed out that returns from Britain’s 17 World Pool racedays in 2021 combined for more than 10 percent of all returns to the industry from bookmakers for the entire year.
That money should come with a set of expectations that racing is run fairly and bound by rules that are easily understood by the Hong Kong customer. After all, why should a punter in a Kowloon betting shop be given world’s best practice stewarding when he bets on Sha Tin and Happy Valley, but not Royal Ascot or Flemington?
You might see a protest of another kind if an odds-on favourite has an objection against them upheld. The HKJC branches avoided damage during the social unrest in 2019 but they might not be so lucky if a 1.5 chance has a race taken off him because a jockey tried too hard!
Australia, in which each state has its own stewards panel and view, is not alone in its confusion on the contentious issue. In Britain the clock is ticking on whether or not officials will back down on a proposed rule that would see horses disqualified if a jockey breaches the rules. It is due to start in January, with a one month long ‘settling in’ period, but the noises coming out of the jockeys room there, and perhaps pressure applied to the BHA, give the impression that the rule will be reduced to severe punishment for the jockey alone.
This would be in line with the thoughts of former Hong Kong and Sydney chief steward John Schreck, who spoke with great clarity about the issue to Asian Racing Report’s chief journalist David Morgan in August.
“I vehemently disagree with the suggestion that horses that are excessively whipped should be disqualified,” Schreck said.
“I think the general thing they have done in Britain regarding the whip, they should be highly-commended for it; that is to try and reduce whip use themselves rather than have it forced upon the sport by somebody outside, which will inevitably happen if the sport doesn’t do something itself.
“But my view is that if someone breaches a rule, the penalties for breaching that rule should be visited upon those who so breach it.”
Interestingly Shinn mentioned that riding in Hong Kong, where whip rules are less strict, contributed to his overuse. Shinn was riding in Group 1s at Sha Tin six days earlier, so adjustment would be difficult.
Hong Kong and Japan are still outliers when it comes to some aspects of whip rules among major jurisdictions, and while it isn’t completely ‘open slather’ in Asia as some have described, more leeway is allowed. Change could be coming though and one area believed to be under consideration is not allowing strikes on consecutive strides.
But why should a jockey like Shinn – or other globetrotters like Ryan Moore or James McDonald – need a set of complex rules at each stop anyway?
One of the great hopes for racing is the further globalisation of the sport and international commingled pools, but common ground is needed and stewards need to think broadly about the consequences of their decisions.
It is fitting that the decision to open this can of worms was in Melbourne, given that the Asian Racing Conference will be held there in February. The conference will play host to the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) rules harmonisation committee and an international stewards conference. Saturday’s decision has certainly provided material for an agenda item that deserves robust discussion.
Hopefully some sound reasoning and common ground between jurisdictions can be found.
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX