Michael Cox

MICHAEL COX: Dropping whip protests the easy option for stewards

Deliberating over protests like last Saturday's in Adelaide really isn't that complicated – one jockey rode within the rules, one didn't – writes Michael Cox

By Michael Cox

Use it or lose it, that is the decision facing Australian stewards that seem set against applying whip rules to protests. And after a weak decision not to uphold an objection in Adelaide left punters fuming last weekend, let’s hope stipes stop taking the easy option.

Stewards’ steadfast refusal to uphold a whip protests continued in the face of what seemed overwhelming evidence on Saturday at Morhpettville, the latest in the string of similar incidents that have caused serious consternation among punters.

When Jeff Maund flagrantly flouted whip rules to drive Classy Joe to a narrow win it looked an easy one for stewards, and a chance to set a precedent.

The dismissed protest comes after similar incidents in Sydney and Melbourne that highlighted stipes’ reluctance to enforce the rules of racing.

The Australian rules of racing include a provision that excessive whip use is grounds for protest, but stewards have been loath to apply it. Only once have stewards upheld a protest due to a whip breach, when two horses dead-heated at Sunshine Coast in 2016.

Since then section 10 of Rule 132 – the right to uphold a protest due to a breaking the whip rules – has gone unused despite ample opportunity to apply it. Jockeys have been fined but protests have been dismissed, no matter how tight the margin and even in the case of dead heats.

The easy way out would be to remove the section of the rule all together – which is n option being discussed – but taking the matter out of stewards’ hands would only amplify the real issue and further erode punters’ confidence.

However difficult it may be to quantify the effect a whip strike has on a horse, is  it anymore difficult than a protest relating to interference? What about the tricky matter of running and handling charges? Compared with judging a jockeys’ vigour, counting whip strikes is relatively cut and dried.

Many of the controversial dismissed protests related to narrow margins and with whip breaches from jockeys that were obviously in complete disregard to the rules.

As was the case on Saturday and for punters that had backed runner-up Andrea Mantegna rightfully felt aggrieved. Todd Pannell rode within the rules on the runner-up and Maund completely ignored the rules on the winner. Maund wailed on Classy Joe with 13 strikes, hitting the horse eight more times than permitted before the 100m mark and also breaking the rules with whip strikes on five consecutive strides.

Todd Pannell rode within the rules on the runner-up and Maund completely ignored the rules on the winner.

Not only did Maund keep the race, his penalty was paltry, $1,700 in total, which is less than the winning jockey’s share.

A willingness to uphold protests and steeper penalties for breaches would be a smart start for stewards but simplifying the rules would also be helpful. No more metre markers that require jockeys to not only count strikes, but also be aware of marker polls.

A better rule would be just a simple amount of strikes allowed in a race – say 10 or 12, perhaps dependent on the distance of the race – and none on consecutive strides. Anymore than the allowed strikes and there are set fines and mandatory suspensions, and make it double for a Group 1 when the stakes are highest. As long as the deterrents are strong and consistent, long-standing habits will soon change.

It is surprising that a similar situation to Saturday’s debacle hasn’t occurred in a big race, but if stewards continue to go soft when it comes time to enforce the rules then a feature event is eventually going to be maelstrom of mainstream media attention. Can you imagine the furore if it was the Melbourne Cup and not a relatively minor meeting at Morphettville that this latest controversy occurred?

There was a time when careless riding was all the rage in big races and jockeys were prepared to pull out all stops to win a big one. Then Greg Hall cut the field in half aboard Merlene in the 1996 Golden Slipper.

Hall’s wild piece of riding – a race-winning but high risk move to get into space – was thankfully a catalyst for change. Jockeys were subsequently hauled in front of stewards pre-race and read the riot act. It was made clear that such flagrant disregard for the rules would cost a jockey his winning percentage and a lengthy stint on the sidelines. The proactive measures worked and feature races are now run in a far safer manner.

Australian stewards don’t need to wait for a high-profile flashpoint like Merlene’s Slipper with the whip rules to make changes though, they can simply do the right thing, and hopefully before the big  spring races when the spotlight shines brightest on the sport.

If officials keep taking the easy out then the pressure will only build. If a similar incident happens in a big race then the debate won’t be about protests it will centre around animal welfare and the question may be forced upon racing from outside the sport’s bubble: do you need the whip at all?

A whip ban is a long way off, but sadly, the latest noise out of Racing Australia is that the ability of stewards to uphold protests on whip rules will be rescinded, citing the stewards’ obvious reluctance to enforce the sport’s rules. If the rule isn’t used it will be lost, which would not only be another blow for customer confidence, but more evidence of Racing Australia’s status as a hollow administrative body.

 

 

“Head-to-head, neck-and-neck”: Australian racing’s five best two-horse duels