Sunday Times, 17 January 2021
If you don’t zap the tumour, the whole body can suffer. Bryony Frost’s brilliance in the saddle and her passionate, animal-embracing eloquence in triumph have given British racing its warmest media lift since Frankie Dettori finally won the Derby at his 15th attempt in 2007. But what started as a predictable running sore — a case of perceived bullying by other jockeys followed by wild, unpublicised allegations from both sides of the argument — has been allowed to fester into a dreadful state. Only painful surgery is likely to cure it.
It is important to understand that the problem preceded anything that has happened since an incensed Robbie Dunne confronted Frost at Southwell on September 3. Fellow jockey Dunne accused her, wrongly in my opinion, of deliberately causing the fatal fall of his horse Cillian’s Well.
Frost, 25, did not turn professional until 2017, so when she won a grade-one race at Kempton that first December there was bound to be bit of jealousy, as there always is of a new, much lauded kid on the block. In Frost’s case this has been accentuated by a touch of resentment at the adulation her unique, breathless words from the saddle — “this is epic, he is Pegasus” — have brought, plus an element of denied but ingrained misogyny in what remains a very tough, male-dominated profession.
Frost is steeped in racing: both her brother, Hadden, and her Grand National-winning father, Jimmy Frost, are former jockeys. She has always seemed able to fight her corner, as she showed when chopping off her fellow rider Gavin Sheehan en route to her famous victory on board Frodon in the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park last month, a move that led to a two-day suspension.
Those closest to the Devonian have been aware for some time of her unhappiness and a sense of being bullied, however. A while ago she thought a senior rider had deliberately tried to push her wide as she was was approaching a hurdle. Such aberrations usually get sorted out because driving half a ton of horse over a fence in close-up competition is dangerous enough without bringing personal feuds into the equation. Nevertheless it seems this was not resolved, nor was a feeling among respected and non-misogynist fellow riders that Frost had a tendency to take other people’s ground. That has not helped with her popularity among her peers.
Into this you inject the Southwell incident. A witness to the original row claims it was at first no worse than you would expect in the circumstances, a straightforward confrontation between Dunne, the 35-year-old Irishman, and Frost, who have 28 and 30 winners respectively this season.
However, things subsequently seem to have got well out of hand, some foolish and wild allegations appear to have been made, a complaint has been filed with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and an inquiry has begun. All the participants have declined to talk on the record.
All, that is, bar Jimmy Frost, who this week said it was time for racing “to come into the 21st century”. Bryony will not elaborate but had hinted that all was not well during her otherwise euphoric TV turn at Kempton last month, confirming as much in a Guardian interview. Whatever the rights and wrongs, going forward is going to be difficult.
It is ridiculous that this has dragged on for so long. Racing is a small community. There are 500 registered players in the Premier League, 4,000 professional footballers in the UK, but only 50 jockeys who have ridden more than ten winners. “Of course we have our ups and downs but I have always found us a close-knit, supportive family,” one leading jockey told me last week. In this case the family were unable to solve their problem.
Now we are close to a perfect storm from which few will emerge with much honour. From all the conversations I have had this past week I do not believe racing is endemically the bullying, sexist place that this story depicts, but in this case something has gone badly wrong and however uncomfortable the findings, the jockeys’ room needs to reboot.
Help could be at hand, for in the super agent Jon Holmes, the new chairman of the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA), the riders have a man who is used to dealing with controversy in the public glare. Holmes has the likes of Gary Lineker, David Gower, Michael Atherton and now Ruby Walsh on his books, and had to defuse the “Old Farts” rugby crisis after Will Carling’s off-camera disparagement of the RFU in 1997.
Holmes is recovering in hospital after an operation. When he returns, the BHA needs to realise that better dialogue with the PJA is needed, just as the PJA must publish its own code of conduct. There are no easy solutions. It looks as if racing will need to accept that, as with the rest of our pandemic life, the news is likely to get worse before it gets better.