A MERGER OF TURF’S RULERS IS THE ONLY WAY FORWARD

13 October 2002

By showing up the Jockey Club, last week’s Panorama programme has done racing a big favour

Panorama has done racing a favour. Not in revealing corruption – there was not a single thing in the programme that we did not already know – but in exposing how desperately dodgy and inept the whole game can still look to the outside world.

I began as a jockey 40 years ago and have been proud to uphold racing in the newspapers and on television for three full decades, so to say that Panorama hurt me is something of an understatement. Have I really been entirely naive all these years? I have presented Cheltenham and all the Classics. I have written about everyone from stable lads to the monarch herself. I have been offered £500 to lose a race and even had one “gentleman” suggest that he could “send the boys round” if I had any “aggro”. Have I looked dodgy and inept too?

In some ways the answer has to be “Yes”. The target last Sunday was the Jockey Club, but it’s no good the rest of us passing the blame to that body alone. We have accepted the Jockey Club as the official racing regulator, we work under its rules, many of us believe in its efforts. If it was made to seem ridiculous and outdated, and it was, then the blow affects us all.

But the damage is done. The wounds need examining and the path to future health made clear. Surprisingly, perhaps in view of the convulsions of the past week, I believe the diagnosis to be positive and a considered contribution from the Mansfield MP, Alan Meale, on Channel 4’s The Morning Line yesterday did nothing to suggest there was not a way to start sensible discussion to unite interested parties on a better way ahead.

For a start the business is not corrupt in the overall sense as suggested by Panorama. Those with most to lose if it were would be the bookmakers. The very last thing they want is a whole lot of jockeys and criminals ripping them off at every turn, and one of the single omissions of the programme was not to take an authoritative view from the betting profession as to how well racing is disciplined at present.

Secondly, there are two crucial reviews already under way to extend and improve that control. Following the Budd Report on Gambling there are talks to establish a commission to oversee all gaming, racing included. And as part of the British Horseracing Board’s full scale re-assessment of its role, there are ongoing discussions on the exact operation of the regulatory powers at present held by the Jockey Club.

Alan Meale is the government’s adviser on racing and served on the Home Affairs Committee out of which the BHB was born. His view, and mine, is that the whole point of developing the BHB was to one day have a modern governing body answerable for the whole of the sport. Getting there will have its problems, not least for the BHB itself, which will have to develop a much wider perspective, taking in the interests of punters and bookmakers as well as those of racing professionals.

Peter Savill has been a magnificently forceful opening chairman but as a major owner and a racecourse chairman his is anything but an independent view and the future lies with the BHB executive, headed by Greg Nicholls, the talented former Australian Rules footballer who cut his teeth running the Melbourne Cup.

Seventy per cent of The Morning Line audience voted for the Jockey Club to go, which is a harsh judgment on many years of dedicated and mostly effective service. For, contrary to the impression given last Sunday, the conduct of British racing is well respected around the world. There is unprecedented video, veterinary and media surveillance. There are bad apples but the very nature of the competition between participants on the track and between punter and bookmaker mean that miscreants tend to emerge quite quickly. For in racing, uniquely among sports, everyone has to accept that there is potential for corruption every time the starter pulls his lever. Get beat in racing, and to many eyes, you are guilty until proved innocent.

To most people who watched on Sunday, racing, and in particular the Jockey Club, stand guilty now. Guilty of doing nothing while the white knight that was security chief Roger Buffham single handedly tried to nail the criminals only to be frustrated at every turn. It was guilty all right. But much more in perception than performance.

The trouble is that racing has always existed with the romantics on one wing, the rogues on the other and most people rocking along in the middle. The Jockey Club have always tended towards the old-fashioned romantics and are now absolutely busted as a brand name. You only have to mention them to conjure up all those tired old top hat cliches with which Panorama opened on Sunday. However well run the Jockey Club’s executive branch may be, the top positions are taken by amateurs from a pukka private club. Always well intentioned, often but not always very bright, and amateurs just the same.

The way ahead is not to gleefully join in the kicking but to take the best work of the Jockey Club and combine it with wider representation under a street-wise banner which will win back credibility with the public. A new regulator will, unlike Panorama and particularly Roger Buffham, have to recognise the difficulties under which disciplinary bodies now labour and must lobby parliament for wider powers and for an audit trail of betting patterns.

All evidence is welcome but it needs to be weighed sensibly, not presented in the entirely one-eyed manner of last Sunday. The disaster of the Brian Wright affair, in money terms at least the biggest scandal ever to hit the game, has been the ultimate proof of the need for vigilance. Rather than squabble about the past, racing should build its future.

It will not all be comfortable. Increased restrictions like the banning of mobile phones in the jockeys’ room need to be tolerated and racing professionals have to clean up the behind-the-hand “cleverness” which they now know gives out such an unpleasant impression to outsiders. But it must be done. I want again to be proud to call myself a racing man.

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