“IF you don’t like racing go and watch Peppa Pig.” That was the comment from Ted Walsh on Thursday when asked on RacingTV by Lydia Hislop to comment on the 37-day bans given to three amateur riders after a gruelling four-mile National Hunt Chase, run on the worst ground of the week at Cheltenham.
The riders were banned on the grounds that they had “continued in the race when it appeared to be contrary to the horse’s welfare.”
Only four of 18 finished, Finny Maguire received bad injuries in a fall and Ballyward had taken what looked like a fatal fall, before the eight remaining runners headed down the hill to the third last.
Two took tired falls at the second last and the horse in third, Just Your Type fell after the last.
Almost 70,000 people were in attendance and as the race finished, four fallen horses were on the ground hidden behind screens within sight of the grandstands. If you don’t like it, look away is not really the wisest reaction.
Declan Lavery’s ban was the most contentious because he actually finished, third of the four. It needs to be clarifed what should be done when we also requite jockeys to ride to “achieve the best position”. And what rules are jockeys guided by in a situation that is “contrary to the horse’s welfare,” presumably very tired horses at the end of long distance chases.
The bans for Noel McParlan (eight days) and Rob James (five whip and 12 ‘welfare’) were less contentious, and you can say that, on a day that was headlined by fallers, Buveur, Benie, too many in the Arkle, the stewards over-reacted, but again we are looking back in the light of a fantastic Thursday, when everyone can say isn’t our sport wonderful.
Damien Skehan avoided a ban for the four-miler when he appeared before the stewards on Thursday with an explanation for his actions.
He did however, appear to take his time in completing over the final fences, Clondaw Cian was at the back of the remaining runners coming down the hill but the lack of sanction caused another bout of indignation. Had the BHA backtracked? The BHA may be too influenced by their Australian view of ‘welfare’ in jump racing, but the wider picture must be addressed.
We are all, and many in racing especially, guilty of selective indignation when we want. Most amateurs are excellent horsemen – they have to be, as Jamie Codd said after the Bumper win on Envoi Allen, “My job is to educate him.”
No horse was found to have any injuries when examined afterwards. But that was not the full issue here. Anyone who looked at the head-on pictures of three horses lying motionless on the ground for a time, could not, and should not, feel this was the right image to show to the public at racing’s showcase festival.
On Thursday, Barry Geraghty was interviewed after his second winner. “My three kids are at home watching. Órla’s class had the TV on in the classroom for the last race, so I hope they had it in for this race as well.”
Now turn them away from Peppa Pig and you would hope they and their classmates also got to see the brilliant aftermaths to the Ryanair and the Stayers’ Hurdle, thrilling emotional moments that displayed all that is good in racing and its participants, Frost, Coleman, Gemmill, all speaking so well.
But you would hesitate though, to show anyone, especially any new young viewers, that head-on finish over the last two fences of the National Hunt Chase and say look, there’s our sport.
AP McCoy said on ITV that it was the worst thing he had seen in 25 years. AP rode hard but always within the rules. For all that he is one of the most respected in the sport, the BHA could as easily have found an equally respected figure in John Francome to support their case, he that has called for a ban on the whip!
Our own office contains many who are horse lovers and have competed in equestrian sport. None felt comfortable at the images of the fallen horses in that race, Mulcahys Hill lying motionless with his neck bent under him. Eventing, endurance riding, incidents like this would not have gone unpunished. Show jumping has strict rules on any marks from the use of a riders' spurs, to the point the class winner is disqualified if the tiniest amount of blood is drawn.
In the same excellent interview on Thursday, conducted by Hislop, Ted Walsh also said on the issuing of whip bans on the basis of a number of strikes. “If it looks wrong, it is wrong.”
Well, the National Hunt Chase finish looked wrong. I’ve never seen a need to ban the whip, but while this may be a once-off case, due to the softer ground and some background needs clarifying, there were enough people expressing unease to justify some intervention by the racing authorities.