19 December 2004

Brough Scott says common sense should have prevailed at Plumpton.

In the realms of abuse it was about the equal of shouting at the neighbour’s dog. Timmy Murphy probably shouldn’t have thrown his whip at his horse as it galloped away after falling with him at Plumpton on

Monday. But to be suspended for seven days for “improper riding” over the crucial Boxing Day to New Year period is taking “animal correctness” as well as the English language to new heights of absurdity.

Whatever occurs with his delayed appeal, Murphy will already be wishing he had never taken the ride on the novice chaser Semi Precious when booked jockey Noel Fehily cried off on Tuesday morning. True the gelding was favourite, had won his only previous chase at Hereford and had closed up impressively with four fences to jump at Plumpton. But, in the midst of the hottest streak of his career, Murphy was hardly short of winners or desperately in need of his seven per cent share of the modest £3,800 first prize.

So what happened after Semi Precious turned over and skidded alongside Murphy on the Sussex turf was always in the spirit of exasperation rather than disaster. And what happened wasn’t very much. As he got up, Murphy grabbed out but failed to catch Semi Precious with his right hand and then angrily threw his whip at the horse’s disappearing backside with which he may or may not have made any contact at all.

There were no spectators to hear what words may have escaped Murphy’s lips, there were no immediate pictures on satellite channel Attheraces, and the only pick up was from the closed-circuit cameras used by the local authorities and their views are well summarised by the stipendiary steward Richard Westropp, who acts as a racing equivalent of clerk to the magistrates.

“The stewards,” said Westropp with admirable lack of comment, “found Murphy guilty of improper riding following misuse of his whip. The pictures from the scout (from behind) camera shows that he threw his whip at the backside of the horse as it ran off. The rule is quite clear: it applies whether or not the rider is still mounted on the horse.”

The rule, as applied in this case, is an ass. The normal ban for either “excessive use” or “excessive force” with the whip is three days. On Tuesday, Murphy serves a one-day suspension for hitting a horse “out of stride” at Cheltenham last week. But for petulantly chucking his whip after his horse’s arse, he gets seven days’ suspension and a possible loss of earnings well into five figures. Come on folks, get a sense of proportion, they are horses, not elderly aunts.

The trouble with all this is that it is paved with good intentions – and we know where they lead to. The racing authorities are acting in good faith but without self-confidence. The word they are terrified of is “abuse”. It’s quite right to insist on the highest standards of horse care of any racing territory in the world. But there have to be limits. Murphy’s once notorious temper may have briefly flared on Monday but if it was a football match it would have hardly warranted a yellow card.

There is an issue here much more important than whether the most stylish jockey in the weighing-room graces our tracks on Boxing Day. It is how much judgment should reflect the harsh reality of events on the course rather than the gentler pace of events at home. I have long argued against using slow-motion replays to assess split-second decisions. Play the pictures as many times and from as many angles as necessary, but play them at the speed decisions are taken. What happens out on the track, as on the pitch, is a hot-blooded, high-risk contest. The phrase “making allowances” is not a cop out, it is fairness.

When you pull down the goggles and face the starter, you and your horse are going into a capsule where for a few minutes your joint being will be stretched to the limits. Those who have shared that capsule, man and horse, jockey and jockey, share a bond as strong as any. But it is racing. It matters. You are involved. You compete. And when you get beaten, even more when you turn over with a race at your mercy, you are gutted. And it shows.

You think your partner has let you down. You call him names. You throw your whip at him. It’s called anger. It’s not good. It merits a caution. But it’s a million miles from abuse.

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