Talking Horses: whip splits sport again as riders call rules ‘ridiculous’

“As a collective of jockeys, we’re all together,” Nico de Boinville said after winning the first race on Friday, a clear sign that, despite general delight that the card had beaten the frost, there is a storm brewing ahead of the introduction of new whip rules by the British Horseracing Authority in the run-up to Cheltenham’s Festival meeting in March.

De Boinville was echoing the view of Harry Cobden, the No 1 jockey to Paul Nicholls, the champion trainer, who described the new rules as “bloody ridiculous” after riding a winner at Taunton on Thursday. Under the new regime, riders will be banned from using their whips in the forehand position – the most natural way for a majority of riders to use their stick – and while there will be a four-week “bedding-in” period before penalties are enforced, a single use in the forehand position after 6 February could lead to a seven-day ban, or two weeks if it occurs in a Class 1 or Class 2 event.

The scale of the change that jockeys are being asked to make to their riding style was evident in the third race, as Lilly Pinchin got Dame Du Soir home by a neck in front of the 4-1 favourite, Marta Des Mottes. It was an excellent ride, and while Pinchin used the whip four times in the forehand position, Dame Du Soir responded all the way to the line. In less than two months’ time, however, the same ride would see her banned for at least a fortnight.

“I do, massively,” Pinchin said, when asked if she shared Cobden and De Boinville’s concerns. “We’ve got jockeys coming over from Ireland, where that rule isn’t in place, and we’ve got the Festival coming up. Looking at the way jockeys are using their sticks now, it could become a bit of a factor. For me, I feel like there’s no issue with it [the whip]. I can see why the public don’t like it but for us jockeys, riding the horses, it’s how we’ve always used it. Maybe it needs to be looked at before it’s put into place.”

Harry Skelton, the champion over jumps in 2020-21, had no need to reach for the whip in an easy win on Hidden Heroics, but also also raised concerns about the scale and timing of the changes. “This is something we’ve been doing for a long time, so to adapt as quickly as we’re being asked could be an issue,” Skelton said. “We want to reduce bans, but hopefully we can have the rules firm and fair.

Hidden Heroics ridden by Harry Skelton clears a fence on the way to victory at Cheltenham.
Hidden Heroics ridden by Harry Skelton clears a fence on the way to victory at Cheltenham. Photograph: David Davies/PA

“I think the timing is certainly a problem for the Irish jockeys and for amateurs that have had no bedding-in period. I think now things are being put into practice on the course, it’s a realisation for a lot of jockeys what is actually coming. It’s all very well on paper but until it’s put into practice, you never really know.”

No one wants to see the Festival meeting in March dominated by whip controversies, but Ian Renton, Cheltenham’s managing director, said on Friday that the track had no issue with the timing of the new regime’s introduction. “It’s a BHA decision and the timings are up to them,” Renton said. “The BHA obviously considers all these things in coming to their decision and that’s where we are. We accept the decision and the timing.”

A spokesperson for the British Horseracing Authority said on Friday that the Authority “undertook extensive technical discussions following the publication of the recommendations earlier this year by the [Whip] Steering Group, which itself included two leading, current jockeys [Tom Scudamore and PJ McDonald].

“We recognise the importance of working with jockeys, which is why we have engaged with them and their representatives to make sure they understand the changes being brought in through communication and education. We will be happy to continue with such engagement prior to the implementation of the new rules and penalties, and throughout the respective bedding-in periods for both codes.”

The Professsional Jockeys’ Association was contacted but had not responded to the Guardian’s request for comment at the time of going to press.

Cheltenham leads abandonments in frozen weather

Saturday afternoon’s feature cards at Cheltenham have been abandoned after temperatures dropped to minus 5C overnight at both venues. Frost sheets were deployed at Cheltenham after racing on Friday, but as the mercury began to drop it became a race against time.

Newcastle 1.09 Cloch Nua 1.44 Laser Guided 2.19 Intricacy 2.54 Enemy 3.28 Blazing Son 4.00 Pocket The Packet 4.30 Brewing 5.00 Sugar Baby

Wolverhampton 3.50 Cicely 4.20 Deira Star 4.50 Ahlawi 5.20 Nakano 5.50 Amanda Hug’N’Kiss 6.20 Smart Boyo 6.50 Inexplicable

It took the clerk of the course, Jon Pullin, and his team around three hours to cover the whole of the New Course, which is used for the two-day International meeting, but in the end their efforts were in vain. “Temperatures were at zero at the last on Friday and then we began to get the covers down, which we did through tremendous effort in three hours,” said Pullin.

“As we were laying them the temperatures were a consistent minus 1c/minus 2C and we’ve been a consistent minus 4C since midnight with a low of minus 5C. Unfortunately we have got areas of frozen ground under the covers. At least we managed to race on Friday. At this stage no decisions have been made about rescheduling any races.”

Doncaster were due to inspect at 9.30am for their meeting but just after 7.30am the decision had already been taken. Groundstaff were unable to get the covers down in time following repairs to the track after racing on Friday and temperatures reached -5C overnight. Hereford staged an inspection at 7.30am ahead of their fixture on Saturday and eventually abandoned.