In the days when the Jockey Club still governed and regulated horse racing in Britain, John Francome once referred to stewards as ‘Cabbage Patch Dolls’. The former champion jockey was, of course, likening the voluntary referees to the line of soft-sculptured, potato-faced toys that were ‘adopted’ by small children worldwide in the early Eighties. He may have had a point but, in any case, the Jockey Club ceased to have any responsibility for running the sport over a decade ago, following the merger of the British Horseracing Board (BHB) and the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA), to form the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), in July, 2007.
However, the latest ‘refereeing decision’, as it was described in BHA statement, and its supposed justification has, once again, put the stewards – many of whom are still voluntary – at odds with racing professionals. On Sunday, January 26, 2019, stewards at Uttoxeter fined Worcestershire trainer Henry Oliver £140 for waving his arms at his steeplechaser Burrenbridge Hotel, who was mulish at the start of SWUK Steel Decking Handicap Chase. Oliver himself described the fine as ‘petty’, although he added, ‘The same steward had me in for a horse at Bangor recently and told me I was running it over the wrong trip, so I don’t know why the stewards don’t train the horses themselves.’
Another former champion jockey, Sir Anthony McCoy, went a stage further, branding the decision ‘embarrassing rubbish’, while the subsequent assertion by the BHA, later retracted, that horses race ‘of their own free will’, left reigning champion trainer Nicky Henderson ‘in despair’. Barbury Castle trainer echoed that sentiment, describing the BHA as ‘becoming a laughing stock’ and expressed his annoyance at ‘being dictated to by people who seem to have no understanding of the horse.’
In light of the recent figures on equine fatalities, which revealed that 202 horses died on British racecourses in 2018, at a rate of 0.22% per runner – the same as recorded in 2014 – Brant Dunshea, Chief Regulatory Officer at the BHA, has called for a consolidated effort from the racing industry, as a whole, on the safety issue. However, if recent performance is anything to go by, the BHA seems as woefully out of touch with contemporary horse racing as the Jockey Club ever was. What Mr. Dunshea & Co. need, first and foremost, is a mighty public relations effort to restore confidence in their competency and expertise.