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Initial Grand National report shows a few cracks in the BHA’s logic and weakness in Mr Bittar

The BHA’s findings regarding the deaths of Synchronised and According To Pete, as well as those concerning the start of the 2012 Grand National were published today.

The cause of Synchronised’s injury appears to have been the solid structure around which the National fences are  built – thick wooden stakes which have a rubber-covering applied before being dressed with spruce.  The report does not conclude that these posts caused the fractures to Synchronised but I believe the evidence points very strongly in that direction.

Here is the relevant section

After the fall, the horse got up and carried on running and jumping fences riderless. On review of the footage there is no evidence to suggest he was carrying any sort of injury at this point. This is corroborated by speed sensing data, which shows that the horse was travelling at the same speed both before and after the fall at Becher’s.

The injury that led to Synchronised being put down occurred at Fence 11. He appears to decelerate into the fence and does not jump it cleanly, dragging his hindlegs and hindquarters through the fence. It would appear he fractured his right hind tibia and fibula in the process.

This finding should signal the end for these wooden stakes. Aintree will have to come up with a way of building those famous fences around a material which has sufficient give to keep bones intact.

As for the start, the BHA has managed to find all 40 riders guilty of offences there while enforcing no punishment. They excuse themselves from this by applying discretion:

Despite the apparent breaches of the relevant Rules, it has been decided not to bring charges against any rider. In arriving at this decision the BHA took account of the effect of the delay caused by the late arrival of Synchronised at the start and the complications experienced with re-setting the starting tape.

In taking account of these factors, what logic was applied? Did the delay caused by both events cause the horses to become so difficult to control that the riders could not be blamed?  If so, then how can the jockeys have been guilty of the offence(s)? Or did the delay justify in some odd way the jockeys’ behaviour?  If the latter is the case, then what is on offer is a post-National dispensation from what the riders were instructed to do pre-National, so no offence there either.

The only other conclusion is that the BHA has finally and publicly accepted what we all knew anyway – pre-race briefings to Grand National jockeys are a complete waste of time and breath. The post-2011 BHA GN report carried strong evidence that speed over the first six fences is highly likely to be a factor in the number of casualties.  In light of that it seems foolish to tacitly concede that the jockeys can pretty much behave as they like at the start; why offer them carte-blanche regarding their intended tactics, the most favoured of which seems to be ‘get a good position’ (go fast early)?

If changes are to be implemented effectively, the BHA is going to have to take a much stronger stance on the behaviour of jockeys at the start and perhaps even in the early stages of the race itself.

In this case, the BHA has decided to write to riders ‘expressing disappointment’:

The BHA has written to all the riders concerned and expressed their disappointment at the conduct of riders at the start, especially bearing in mind that considerable emphasis was placed on this aspect of the race during the pre-race Jockey’s Briefing. In showing disregard to the instructions of the Starter, the riders placed those on the ground assisting with the start in a potentially dangerous situation.

Disappointment is a Victorian concept in my opinion. It’s like saying ‘It’s not fair!’ When disappointment occurs, the fault lies with the disappointee not the disappointer.  People will not change their behaviour because you are disappointed; they will change it if the penalty for not doing so is severe enough.

I am not having a go at jockeys here. I suspect that Mr Bittar is a compromiser at heart: in his position, compromise should come in much smaller doses. “We think you’re wrong but we will let you off” is no foundation on which to build anything. Sensible rules, just punishment and a proper understanding of when to apply these will be critical to Mr Bittar’s future at the BHA.  This has been a very woolly start.  I hope the recommendations of the full Grand National report contain no fudge.

Whip – a hotch-potch but the BHA had to act

Despite the emphasis on public opinion in today’s  BHA Review of whip use, racing would be a modern-day Canute in trying to turn the tide of public perception. Figures in today’s report showing how popular racing is (where did the 1 billion Global TV viewers a year come from?), fail to reflect reality – racing is way below the radar of  the vast majority of Britons – and it probably always will be.

Quantifying in this survey doesn’t real tell us much. What does ‘not very interested’ mean? They might watch the National and nothing else?

‘Fairly interested’? Maybe watch the National and Royal Ascot? Or perhaps they bet once a week/month – who knows?

The survey, around which much of the decision-making seems to have revolved, has several weaknesses beyond those mentioned above. The first objective mentioned in the Background heading is:

Clearly gauge the full spectrum of views on whether whipping is perceived to be cruel, in particular quantifying the extent to which people’s views differ depending on the situation

It’s impossible to get a full spectrum from a self-selecting group who have pre-registered, are internet savvy, possibly inclined to be opinionated about many things, and are probably notably different demographically from racing’s main funder the betting shop punter (how many of those are registered with YouGov?)

45% of respondents had no interest in racing – perhaps that balance was perceived as being necessary when seeking general public opinion, I don’t know.

I’ve slated the authorities often enough, but if the horror views of the corpses of Dooney’s Gate and Ornais were not sufficient,  when Jason Maguire jumped off an exhausted close-to-collapse winner, his whip still as hot as Ballabriggs, then many others dismounted to help a scurrying non-uniformed posse desperately hurl water on the ‘survivors’ of 4m 4f and 30 big fences in Mediterranean heat – watched by 9 million people – the BHA went 1.01 in my book to be forced into doing something dramatic. To have done nothing would have been the racing equivalent of the Murdochs ignoring the NOTW scandal.

The key for me was that, after the National, racing was close to losing the RSPCA – a terminal outcome if that happened, in my opinion.

We’ve ended up with a hotch-potch, no doubt, but it could never have been anything else. Public opinion, in reality, might mean little to racing, but it sure as hell means a lot to established animal welfare organisations.

The Grand National has changed many lives. The PR disaster that was the 2011 running has changed racing forever.

Changes to Grand National Course after review of 2011 meeting

Aintree Racecourse and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) today announced the interim findings of their review into the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National meeting.

The findings of the Grand National Review Group relate specifically to the Grand National Course and its fences, which will be subject to a balanced package of modifications with the aim of enhancing safety for competitors.

The balanced changes to the course and fences follow detailed expert analysis of all races run on the Grand National Course since 1990 (when the course was significantly remodelled).

In addition, consultation has been conducted with the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare and invaluable input has been provided by leading trainers and jockeys in conjunction with the National Trainers Federation (NTF) and Professional Jockeys Association (PJA).

Work will now commence to ensure all modifications are fully bedded-in ahead of Aintree’s next race on the Grand National Course, the Becher Chase on Saturday, December 3, 2011.

Julian Thick, Managing Director of Aintree Racecourse, said: “The safety and welfare of horses and riders is always our number one priority at Aintree. This is the latest stage in our continuous drive to make the Grand National Course as safe as possible. The Grand National is an unparalleled challenge over four miles and four furlongs and this unique event is the most famous race in the world.

“It is not possible to completely eliminate risk in horse racing. However, I am confident the course changes we are announcing today will, over time, have a positive impact. We will continue to monitor this carefully and make further improvements and modifications to the course if required as part of our ongoing commitment to safety.”

Jamie Stier, Director of Raceday Operations and Regulation for the British Horseracing Authority, said: “These modifications are sensible and balanced. Aintree, our team of Course Inspectors and our Senior Veterinary Advisor have analysed DVD footage of races and fallers over the National Course since 2000. We have also received a lot of valuable feedback from our sport’s participants and welfare groups. I truly believe it all makes for a strong package of track changes that will enhance rider and equine welfare.”


The modifications to the Grand National Course announced today are: 

1. The landing side of Becher’s Brook (fence six on the first circuit and fence twenty-two on the second circuit) will be re-profiled to reduce the current drop (i.e. the difference in height between the level of the ground on takeoff and landing) by between 10cm (4 inches) and 12.5cm (5 inches) across the width of the fence. This will provide a more level landing area for horses. After the work is complete the drop will be approximately 25cm (10 inches) on the inside of the course and 15cm (6 inches) on the outside of the course. This difference in drop from the inside to the outside of the fence is being retained to encourage riders to spread out across the width of the fence and also to retain the unique characteristics of Becher’s Brook. The height of the fence will remain unaltered at 4 feet 10 inches (1.47 metres).

2. Levelling work will also be undertaken on the landing side of the First fence (fence 17 on the second circuit) to reduce the current drop and provide a more level landing.  By doing so, this amendment aims to avoid catching out horses that may ‘over-jump’ the (first) fence in the early stage of the race. The height of the fence will remain unaltered at 4 feet 6 inches (1.37 metres).

3. The Fourth fence will be reduced in height by 2 inches to 4 foot 10 inches (1.47 metres). It was identified during the review that fence Four and fence Six (Becher’s) were statistically more difficult to jump than other fences in all races over the National fences and this is the reason for this change.

4. The height of toe boards on all National fences will be increased to 14 inches (36cm). Toe boards are the orange board, positioned at the base of the fence and provide a clear ground line to assist horses in determining the base of the fence.


British Horseracing Authority Grand National Review continues


The BHA has launched a wider review of all operational aspects of the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National in April 2011, which is ongoing. The Review aims to explore all available options to reduce manageable risk to horses and riders in the world’s most famous race. The results of the full review will be published in October.

The Review includes consideration of the pre and post-race care of all horses in light of raceday weather conditions in recent years. A range of procedural modifications will be implemented in time for the 2012 John Smith’s Grand National meeting. The details of these modifications will be finalised and announced in due course. However, the Review Group is considering:

A new post-race horse wash down and cooling area off the course for all horses. 

Flexibility in the Grand National race conditions to allow for the shortening or removal of the pre-race parade. This would shorten the time that horses are mounted before the race in the event of unseasonably warm weather.

Breathing Ops – should they be subject to greater scrutiny?

Paul Nicholls reports that more than 20 of his string have had breathing operations during the summer. Mr Nicholls seems to be the chief advocate for this process.
Does anyone have any stats on the effectiveness of this surgery? Anecdotally, my impression is that they rarely offer more than very short term benefit.

If the stats show these ops are effective, should trainers be obliged formally to declare them before the horse next runs?

If Mr Nicholls who, arguably has his pick of the best and healthiest horses, deems surgery necessary on such a high percentage of his string, how many among the general population of racehorses suffer breathing problems?

Should horses with breathing problems be racing at all? (welfare issue?)

Surgery is invasive and must carry a degree of risk to the animal; if medication were available to do the same job, would the BHA allow it to be administered? If not why is a different medical intervention allowed which produces the same result?

Are breathing ops performed to correct ‘faults’ or enhance oxygen intake in an otherwise healthy animal? If the latter, should they be permitted?

I’ve asked Paul Struthers (head of communications at the BHA) if the BHA keep any stats on horses who’ve had breathing ops. Paul says that , in short, they do not. He points out that there are numerous different procedures which tend to be bracketed as ‘breathing ops’.

BHA finally admits it is powerless over fixtures

From this article by Chris Cook in The Guardian today, a quote from Paul Struthers, head of communications at the BHA

“We have responsibility for the fixture list but without any really significant power,” Struthers said, pointing out that Newmarket had been able to move its fixture from a weekday to the Saturday without having to obtain the BHA’s consent. “It has been well documented that that was almost too strong a day’s racing, particularly when looking at the Saturdays on either side of it.

“But Saturday is the most accessible day for people to go racing, to watch racing and to bet on racing. In the current climate, with the levy system broken and offshore bookmakers not paying towards it, racecourses have to try to maximise revenue.”

Paul you cannot expect to have any power when you effectively give away your only bargaining tool – fixtures. The BHA should now withdraw its claim that it ‘governs’ Racing. It might remain as regulator but will, I suspect, only be permitted to regulate according to the wishes of whatever ‘structure’ emerges from the unholy alliance of racecourses and The Horsemen.

Paul Struthers has said that the BHA’s loss of control over fixtures has been historic – racecourses’ ‘rights’ to fixtures have also been cited as ‘historic’.  The BHA claims to be the governing body; governments are allowed to change things. The BHA could have taken back full control of  fixtures – the battle would have been worth it.  Can you ever see the day the Premier League cedes fixture control to clubs?

The BHA had the chance to take back the power, instead it has chosen to surrender both power and responsibility to some as yet unknown new organisation comprising two bodies who’ve been at each other’s throats since tariffs were imposed by one of them – The Horsemen’s Group. What chance have these two of coming up with something that will sustain racing as we know it?  None, is my guess.

I understand the surrender of fixtures control by the BHA is also requested in the submission from the Association of British Bookmakers regarding the Levy replacement.  Well as the quote at the top shows, that has already happened – the first and key strike in the bookmakers’ divide and conquer strategy delivered without a drop of blood spilled.

Those who love the sport should get themselves a nice map of Britain’s racecourses for posterity.  Bookmakers will have a new market over the next decade – betting on the next racecourse to close.

Shame on you BHA.


Dettori’s Newbury ‘strike’ signals the imminent death of the BHA

Frankie Dettori’s refusal to take the mount on Diamond Vision at Newbury on May 13th in a race that was ‘below tariff’ demonstrated vividly how The Horsemen’s Group has ridden roughshod over the BHA, leaving horseracing’s governing and regulatory authority, grovelling in the dust.

It’s reported that Dettori’s official ‘excuse’, was that Jim Crowley, who took his place on Diamond Vision, was entitled to ride as Crowley’s original mount was a non-runner.  The BHA now believe officials might have been misled and are looking at the case.  Be assured there will be no one quaking in his boots at The Horsemen’s Group’s head office.

The Dettori incident might seem a small and unimportant event, but the implications for racing are stark; implicit in Dettori’s excuse is the message ‘tell those buggers any old nonsense, they don’t matter anyway’.

Is there no fight in the BHA? Will they simply allow The Horsemen’s Group to interpret the law as they see fit?  Is the BHA content to be the laughing stock of sport?

How has it come to this? We have a governing body which appears to be held in contempt by those who should most respect it. The Horsemen’s Group, doubtless frustrated by what they saw as a toothless and inefficient BHA, effectively assembled an invasion force and took over racing. It appears the BHA will be permitted to stay ‘in power’ as a puppet government until such times as The Horsemen’s Group chooses to remove them completely.

That time is not far away according to Howard Wright who reported recently, “Parts of the BHA are on the brink of being carved up among horsemen and racecourses . . . responsibility for fixtures and race planning is (to be) shifted towards the newly constituted Horsemen’s Group and Racecourse Group.

Discussions on the roles the two parties will play, and their interdependent relationships, continue. On past form it would be no surprise if somewhere in the background the word ‘control’ was occupying a few minds.”

There is no reference to such a plan on The Horsemen’s Group’s website or on that of the RCA or BHA, so I don’t know what stage they’re at.  One thing I do know is that If the BHA relinquish all control over fixtures, they are finished. Fixture control is the nuclear warhead of racing. Although it’s a grey area, the BHA certainly has its finger much closer to the red button than The Horsemen’s Group does.

At the moment the BHA is responsible for ‘the allocation of fixtures’. Once that right is surrendered, the BHA might as well raise the White Flag over their High Holborn offices.

Would any other governing body in a major sport meekly give up their key commercial asset?

Perhaps someone at the BHA can tell us whether they have simply accepted they are on their way out?  Is a call to arms pointless?

Maybe the BHA believe they will retain control as regulators. Think again if you do BHA. Given the evidence so far, The Horsemen’s Group will ignore your regulations when it suits them. An organisation whose signature business tactic features threats and boycotts is unlikely to be too troubled by minor matters like regulation.

As a member of the Professional Jockeys Association, Frankie Dettori is also, effectively, a member of The Horsemen’s Group.  His mini ‘strike’ on Friday, is unlikely to lead to sanction beyond a paltry fine, if that.

On this form, do you think Dettori and his colleagues are likely to be strict observers of any new rules which might result from the current BHA whip review?

What of trainers, also members of The Horsemen’s Group? Which regulations will they choose to obey?

I have little sympathy for the BHA who, in managing by committee (30 committees/groups report to the Board) have effectively ‘committeed’ suicide.  I’d held out some hope that a new high calibre CEO might just revive them, but there’s every chance that by the time that person arrives, the ‘new’ group will have everything tightly stitched up.

A takeover of racing by a body whose key objective is maximising profit with scant regard for integrity, will sound the death knell for the sport. It might be a long echo between now and the burial, but it will come.

For those sufficiently interested in the current structure of racing, (aside from the supposed governing body, the BHA) see the flow-chart below. This was originally prepared as part of a major article on a proposed restructuring of the BHA, but that now seems a pointless exercise.


BHA – British Horseracing Authority

RCA – Racecourse Assoc

HG – The Horsemen’s Group

REL – Racing Enterprises Ltd

RFC -Racing for Change

NTF – National Trainers Federation

PJA – Professional Jockeys Assoc

NASS – National Assoc of Stable Staff

ROA – Racehorse Owners Assoc

TBA -Thoroughbred Breeders Assoc

Towcester won’t wait for BHA whip review – all races ‘hands and heels’ only from October 5th

The Telegraph reports that Towcester has pre-empted the whip review currently being conducted by the BHA and banned the conventional use of whips.

From the track’s meeting on Oct 5 and at all fixtures afterwards, every race staged at the course will be run under rules currently in place for the successful ‘hands and heels’ series of races.

This series, run in conjunction with the British and Northern racing schools, is staged at a number of tracks both Flat and jumping, and is ostensibly to teach inexperienced jockeys and amateur riders how to get the best out of a horse without recourse to the whip.

One of the rules of that series is that jockeys must carry a whip. They can pull it through from one hand to the other as often as they like and hit a horse down the shoulder with it in a backhand position. However, they cannot smack a horse down the neck in the forehand position, behind the saddle or encourage it by waving the whip parallel to its head. Failure to obey the rules in this series results in automatic disqualification. After Oct 5th, any winner at Towcester whose jockey is found by the stewards to be in breach of these rules will be disqualified.

On hearing the news, the BHA’s head of communications, Paul Struthers said, “We are already conducting a review into our rules and whip use in racing. We have only just received Towcester’s proposal and will need to consider it before discussing it with them.”