A THREATENED jockeys’ strike further receded last night when horse racing’s governing body announced significant concessions over their controversial whip rules that appeared to appease many of the country’s top riders.
The climbdown was sufficient to see top rider Richard Hughes return to the saddle at Newbury – and with a winner – after he ‘quit’ the sport a week ago in disgust at the draconian new punishments.
His two bans, totalling 15 days, were among those suspensions rescinded by the British Horseracing Authority because of the confusion that surrounded the introduction of the rule changes.
Top Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillion can also claim the £52,000 prize money that he lost after landing the valuable Qipco Champion Stakes on Cirrus Des Aigles last Saturday when he struck the victor six times in the final furlong – one more than the permitted limit.
Soumillion had threatened to drag the BHA through the European courts while other riders, such as St Leger-winning jockey William Buick, said they would rather finish second than risk lengthy suspensions – a stance that made a mockery of stringent anti-corruption rules governing ‘non-triers’.
But RSPCA equine consultant David Muir was disappointed at the BHA’s policy reversal.
“Horse welfare should come first, not commercial pressures,” he said.
Both Hughes and Frankie Dettori, part of a deputation of top riders that lobbied the BHA on Monday, welcomed the compromise, albeit with reservations.
Alterations mean that jockeys are no longer restricted to five strikes of the whip in the final furlong or after the last obstacle – the rule that saw the widely respected Hughes walk away from the sport.
And, while the original limits on whip use remain in place, errant jockeys now keep their riding fee – a key demand – and only forfeit their prize money if any infringement incurs a ban of seven days or more.
Yet striking a horse once more than the permitted limit still warrants a five-day ban as the BHA looks to deter whip misuse – a punishment that Buick labels as “ridiculous”.
His view is backed by Hughes, who is now free to ride the highly-rated Strong Suit in the Breeders’ Cup in a fortnight and who has “no regrets” about his stance.
“My beef with the rules was about five strikes after the furlong pole so I’m happy about that, but I don’t think much else has changed,” he said.
“It’s a good move forward but the penalties are very high, as if you make a clerical misjudgment with eight strikes instead of seven, you get a five-day ban, and then a 10-day ban.”
However, Dettori appeared to accept the changes.
“Now is the time to move on and put it into practice,” he said before a number of rides at Doncaster yesterday.
“My opinion is that the structure of the rules is good, but some of the penalties are a bit harsh.”
PJA chief executive Kevin Darley said there were “still serious concerns about the level of penalties for minor infringements.”
But Thirsk-based Flat jockey Adrian Nicholls, who was hit with a five-day ban at Pontefract on Monday that has now been rescinded, said: “I’m glad common sense has prevailed.
“The amount of times was never an issue with me, it was more the hefty bans and the financial penalties with having a young family.”
From a National Hunt perspective, Malton-born Andrew Tinkler welcomed the concessions on prize money and riding fees.
“How could eight hits be acceptable and nine cost a jockey a few thousand pounds depending on the value of the race, and a five-day suspension?” he ventured.
“Towards the end of last week, a lot of us would rather have finished second and kept our prize money percentage, rather than winning the race, losing out on first place money and getting banned. If you were an owner, trainer or had backed the horses in question, you had a right to feel aggrieved.
“We, as jockeys, understand the sport’s perception but we were not appealing to hit a horse 20 times.
“No, we don’t want to smash horses. We were just after a fair playing field that protects our livelihood in a dangerous sport.”
BHA chairman Paul Roy feels the revised sanctions have achieved “the right outcome.”
He will hope that the remaining deterrents will prevent a repeat of damaging controversies such as Jason Maguire being banned after winning this year’s Grand National for hitting Ballabriggs excessively and Dettori being suspended for 10 days after striking Rewilding 24 times at Royal Ascot.
William Buick interview and Racing Post Trophy preview: Page 25.