Talking Horses: BHA pledges to work with jockeys on new stop-race rules

The British Horseracing Authority said on Monday that it will “work with the Professional Jockeys Association and racecourses” to discuss stop-race procedures after its independent disciplinary panel published the reasons for its finding that seven riders who continued racing when the London National at Sandown Park was declared void earlier this month did so because they did not see the yellow warning flag telling them to stop riding.

The seven jockeys, including leading riders Daryl Jacob, Harry Skelton, Jamie Moore and Adam Wedge, were initially banned for 10 days for continuing to the finish past the stricken chaser Houblon Des Obeaux, who had collapsed with a heart attack on the racing line near the a circuit earlier. However, they were successful in an appeal to the panel last week which left all seven free to ride over the busy Christmas period, although Jacob has since been ruled out until the new year by injury.

The panel concedes in its findings that television coverage of the race seemed to suggest that at least two of the riders saw the warning flag, even though all seven “said that they did not see the flag”. However, it adds that “having heard them and considered a large number of factors,” its three members were “quite satisfied that that they were telling the truth, surprising though that may seem upon first viewing of the recordings of the race.”

The panel decided that the jockeys did not see the flag due to “a combination of factors” including poor visibility “just 12 minutes before sunset” and the positioning of Craig Williamson, the flag holder.

A spokesperson for the BHA said on Monday that “the stop-race rules and procedures are essential to protect the safety of horses, jockeys, vets and medical staff,” adding that while the panel “does not make any reference to the adequacy of the procedures in general‚” it has “already committed to work with the PJA and racecourses to discuss these procedures in January.”

In finding that none of the jockeys saw the stop flag, the panel also decided that Stan Shepphard, who told ITV Racing in a live interview shortly after the race that “there was a fluorescent sign which means stop on the course, was relaying information he had received from fellow jockey David Noonan, who was one of two riders to obey the stop signal. As a result, Shepphard “was trying to explain to [interviewer] Oli Bell what had gone wrong, rather than admitting that he himself had seen it but ignored it”.

It further decided that the seven jockeys bypassed the third-last fence – a manoeuvre which would normally be the result of seeing a black-and-white flag – as the result of a “split-second” decision by Skelton, who heard a whistle being used by Williamson and also saw screens that had been erected around Houblon Des Obeaux. Skelton suggested that he believed the screens were much closer to the fence than they actually were and decided to miss the fence. “This was an extraordinary decision,” the panel says, “which gave real pause for thought about its conclusion that no flag was seen, but in the end the conclusion was not displaced.”

Williamson’s evidence to the panel, meanwhile, suggested that Aidan Coleman, who also pulled up when required to do so, had “loudly” said “void race” before reaching the flag. The panel decided, however, that Coleman was detached from the rest of the field and that the seven riders “were hard at work and noise generated by this group could have drowned out what Mr Coleman said.”

In a postscript to its findings, the panel says that such high-profile cases “often lead, regrettably, to a search for scapegoats,” adding that it would “be wrong to treat Mr [Andrew] Cooper [Sandown’s clerk of the course] or Mr Williamson in this way”. Both, it said, “impressed as capable and conscientious men, who gave their evidence in an entirely believable way”. It also suggested that the wording of the rule involved the case could need to be examined, since “as presently drafted, it can be read to exclude any examination of whether jockeys saw or ought to have seen a signal”.

Huntingdon racecourse has been forced to cancel is most popular meeting of the year on Boxing Day due to flood damage following heavy rain on Saturday.

The average crowd at Huntingdon over the first 11 months of the year is just under 1,500 but nearly 6,000 packed into the course on Boxing Day 2018 and a similar attendance had been anticipated on Thursday.

“Although the track has made significant progress in the last 48 hours, there’s flood damage to the stables, weighing room and other public areas which we won’t be able to rectify in time for racing,” Jack Pryor, Huntingdon’s clerk of the course, said on Monday. “We’ve made an early decision as it’s such a busy time and will hopefully allow connections to declare at other meetings.”