It is always problematic to leap from a laissez-faire attitude toward the breaking of rules to an attitude bordering on the draconian. The sort of policing exercised by the Dundalk stewards recently, and endorsed by the Irish Turf Club, will capture everything and everyone in its net of vigilant surveillance, including the innocent, and will allow the incredulous and the opposition to say – look at all the cheats they have in Ireland.
There is no doubt that to counter claims of ignoring the alleged misdeeds of the big fish of Irish racing and only going after the smaller fry, the Dundalk stewards set out to make an example of the biggest fish in the ocean, Aidan O’Brien. I don’t suppose it mattered what horse of his was considered ‘gently handled’, and neither did the punishment metered out; it was Aidan O’Brien they wanted in the dock so they could clearly demonstrate that no one was above the rules of racing anymore.
Not so long ago, initiated by the official British handicappers, I believe, and supported by journalists with a loyalty to bookmakers and punters, there was a movement to have all horses ridden out to the finishing post. This flogging of near-exhausted horses was – well, who knows the true reason behind it. What this proposal wasn’t though was animal welfare friendly, and if Aintree has assured us of nothing else it has made it crystal clear to the public that equine welfare is of paramount importance. Though whether we will see cooling stations at Ascot, Epsom or Goodwood, when temperatures will surely be higher than at Aintree in April, I very much doubt.
I am all in favour of catching cheats; jockeys and trainers who give horses easy races so to get a more favourable weight in a big handicap later in the season. But that is totally different to jockeys giving young horses an easy introduction to racing so that in the future they will enjoy their trips to the racecourse and not fear it. ‘Keeping one’s powder dry’ is also different to a trainer wanting to give a horse a quiet run to re-build confidence after a fall or bad experience. If there is an art to training racehorses then doing what is in the best interests of an individual horse must be key to it and brilliant intuitive horse husbandry should never be liable to punishment by the sport’s governing body. If equine welfare is paramount then fines and suspensions for acting in the best interests of the horse must be morally wrong.
Last year several leading racing journalists described Aidan O’Brien as the best trainer in the world. The man has the patience of saints and his horses are always well-behaved and tractable. For pities sake, he can even saddle them out-of-doors, with the world and his wife looking on. If Aidan O’Brien isn’t the straightest and most honest of men I will be shocked to the point of considering the priesthood as a way of penance for my naivety. I, as with many people, I suspect, would follow him over a cliff in a demonstration of his trustworthiness.
When the likes of Aidan O’Brien are found guilty of not being 100% within the rules of racing then you can take it as read that those in authority have completely lost the plot, and journalists who sing hurrah for the Dundalk stewards are in need of a long lie-down in a darkened room and be made to repeat as a mantra – equine welfare is of paramount importance.
Kindness, when it comes to horses, has its rewards on Earth, not in Heaven. No rule of racing should impinge on the notion that horse welfare comes first. The hard cop attitude now prevalent in Irish stewards rooms is not conducive to the clear message broadcast to millions last Saturday from Aintree.
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.