2 February 2003

Protest over the use of mobile phones in the weighing room is a storm in a teacup at a time when racing desperately needs to regain public confidence

The European Commission for Human Rights may have many good uses but until last week it had not occurred to many of us that these included every Tom, Dick and Harry Punter being able to ring jockeys direct between rides at the racecourse.

Yet when proposals were published last week to restrict mobile phone use by jockeys in their changing rooms, the normally very sensible Philip Robinson went into “hear no evil, see no evil” mode. “It definitely affects our liberties,” says Phillip, a former champion in Hong Kong where even the possession of a mobile phone in the weighing room is an offence. “For one thing, it affects our trade. On any day my manager might ring me five or six times during a meeting about rides and travel arrangements. A ban would make it very difficult.”

Robinson is threatening to resign from the Jockeys’ Association, who are advising co-operation with the ban and he is said to be backed by Kieren Fallon and Pat Eddery among others. True, a jockey’s life in Britain is a lot more peripatetic (particularly in summer) than in Australia, South Africa, Japan and the many other territories where mobile phone use is banned for riders, but did Phillip and his team not notice that last year was something of an annus horribilis for British racing and for jockeys in particular? Did they not see anything of the two major BBC prime-time documentaries alleging widespread malpractice? Did they not hear about, (let’s certainly hope they did not ring) a man called Brian Wright?

Let us remind them that mobile phone use in the weighing room by jockeys Graham Bradley and Barry Wright (no relation) was at the very centre of the trial of the Brian Wright gang, which ended last summer with most of his associates receiving long sentences for their part in the biggest cocaine-smuggling racket in British history. In court Bradley told how he was constantly on the phone with information to the alleged gang leader (now on the run in northern Cyprus); how they had even talked about getting the big race cancelled on Gold Cup day at Cheltenham.

It would be nice, and mostly accurate, to depict the whole Brian Wright saga as one of the periodic boils which flare up in the body of racing and clear quickly once the lancing and swabbing process is over. But it remains the worst scandal to hit the game.

It was the subject of a full-scale Panorama investigation which alleged further malpractice, wholesale incompetence by the authorities and “institutionalised corruption” among jockeys. What is more, this followed the Kenyon Confronts programme which, if higher on innuendo than fact, held up a mirror to racing’s seamier side. To suggest that nothing needed doing about the sport’s image would have been little short of thinking it a cracking idea to nominate Saddam Hussein for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Indeed the very fact that there can be some public sympathy for Robinson’s stand shows how damaged the Jockey Club’s reputation has fallen as racing’s regulator, how people can begin to portray the authorities as dictatorial and unthinking the moment they suggest something as obvious and worldwide acceptable as restricting mobile phone use.

Of course, it will make life more difficult for jockeys, particularly the great majority who, like Robinson, are using their phones for quite legitimate reasons. But get real fellas. “It’s ridiculous how some of them go on,” said one senior jockey, who did not want to be named. “It will be inconvenient for us but the truth is a lot of the people who ring you in the weighing room are not the people you want to get calls from.”

Kevin Darley, the Jockeys’ Association vice-president, also takes a pragmatic view. “Provided they can give us a message board and the ability to make some calls out for organising reasons, I think that within a few weeks no one will remember what all the fuss was about,” he said. “The fact is that after last year we have got to be seen to be doing the right thing for the integrity of the sport.”

Quite how far the whole game has been compromised will now be put in the hands of a former chief constable of Cambridgeshire rejoicing in the rather piratical sounding name of Ben Gunn. He has already served on the review committee, whose recommendations were published last week. “I have no view,” said Mr Gunn, “as to whether or how much it is corrupt. My background is working with evidence. We have had a lot of information and innuendo but that does not amount to evidence. I shall be talking to the two programmes and to all parties in racing to take a view and then make further recommendations.”

Mr Gunn is a long-standing racing fan, having had Newmarket’s July Course under his jurisdiction. But his closing words should be inscribed above a pile of stacked mobile phones in the jockeys’ changing room. “My aim,” he says, “is to get the public to believe that racing has got its house in order. That’s the real challenge.”

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