The recent ‘trials’ of esteemed racehorse trainers Philip Hobbs and Hughie Morrison highlights once again, as it were in the days when The Jockey Club and the National Hunt Committee were in charge of disciplinary matters, that actual guilt is far less important than assigned guilt. The history books demonstrate clearly that when push comes to shove the powers-that-be can always gain conviction through use of catch-all regulations that have no need to distinguish between the truly innocent and the truly guilty. Remember Captain Ryan Price losing his licence, and career for 4 months, when it was decided that Rosyth had shown ‘abnormal improvement in form’ and was disqualified after winning the Schweppes Hurdle, even though Price’s defence that the horse came to hand slowly and as an entire was very much a ‘spring horse’ was proven in subsequent years when the horse was trained by Tom Masson. And when Hill House won the same race a few years later in what looked a common canter Price’s reputation was further tarnished as for six months he lived with the threat of being disqualified for life only to be proved innocent of doping when the Equine Research Station at Newmarket concluded that Hill House could in fact manufacture his own cortisol. As a subsequence of his 4-month ban the future Grand National Anglo winner left his yard to join Fred Winter.
What is clear, and the B.H.B. do not deny the truth of it, is that neither Philip Hobbs nor Hughie Morrison were guilty of the charges brought against them. As licenced trainers, though, they were only considered culpable as they should do everything in their power to prevent the rules of racing relating to stable security being broken at their licensed premises. It is a good thing for society and justice that the police do not take a similar thought-process to criminal law or you and I might be up in front of a judge defending our liberty for not taking all precautions against burglars stealing our possessions.
During the investigations and ‘trials’ of Hobbs and Morrison the emphasis was on acquiring a conviction against the accused rather than establishing the name of the actual perpetrator of the offence. Another point that concerned me during the Morrison ‘trial’ was that no one seemed to think that a criminal offence might have taken place. Someone, it seems, has gained unauthorized entry to racecourse stables and injected a horse with a powerful chemical. Surely this is some kind of criminal assault or damage to personal property that could possibly have caused injury or worse to both the horse and jockey.
Trainers, as with jockeys, owners and stable staff, who through their actions put the well-being of horses or the livelihoods riders in jeopardy should be dealt with by the authorities in the sternest way possible. But you cannot hold a trainer responsible for every misdeed committed under the jurisdiction allowed through being licensed to train racehorses. If two lads have a fist fight in the stable yard should the trainer be accused of causing actual harm to either combatant by not stepping in to break up the fight? If money goes missing should the trainer be the first questioned? Because if the B.H.B. were in charge of criminal law it seems the answer to that question is ‘yes’ as it is far more convenient and cost efficient than seeking to find the real culprit.
The most disquieting aspect of the Morrison case, apart from Morrison displaying a greater amount of initiative in attempting to discover who the actual culprit was, is that the guilty party continues to walk amongst us. Someone out there has access to nandrolene, a powerful anabolic steroid, and who has the nous to administer it, perhaps in a bustling secure space like racecourse stabling. ‘Strict Liability’ is all very good in principle but it is the catch-all rule that allows the B.H.B. carte-blanche to accuse a trainer with any violation from a vet leaving a syringe on the ground after administering a life-saving drug at midnight to routine and calculated use of anabolic steroids. Surely when a horse is proved to be doped the prime concern should be to discover the culprit, not to assign blame when it proves too difficult to discover the name of that culprit. Once it was clear to the investigating team that Hughie Morrison had no reason to dope his horse (Our Little Sister) time and resources should have been devoted to finding the guilty party not to ‘get’ a conviction against Morrison so as to bring the case to a speedy conclusion. Morrison could have been fined £1,000 six months ago and this whole affair kept out of the media spotlight. To have done that would have served racing to greater effect than a demonstration of washing ‘dirty laundry in public’. Instead what we had was a story that would have done justice to a tawdry racing thriller written by an ex-jockey or trainer that has as its climax an unseemly question mark.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.