Thursday, 27 August 2015

Rule N15. Discuss.

"Horses required to re-qualify by Stewards of Meetings
N15. The Track Stewards may require a horse to re-qualify if:
[a] They are dissatisfied with its performance in a race and/or it finishes outside qualifying time.
[b] The Starter deems it unruly.
[c] It behaves in such a way that the Track Stewards consider it a danger to others.
[d] It makes several breaks in one race or breaks in two consecutive races."

When reading a rule that contains the instruction 'may', it is easy to assume that the enforcers of such a rule would automatically exercise their right to enforce the rule, particularly where the rule applies to an activity which involves some element of danger to participants. However, the sense of compulsion which is meant in the usage of the word ‘must’ is not present in the usage of the word 'may', and as a result there is almost an element of discretion attached.

Where rules are administered by paid or professional individuals who are experts in their field (i.e. referees, linesmen, adjudicators), the application of discretion may be tolerated by participants and spectators as by being experts, they are fully aware of the rules, the penalties that can be imposed and the consequences of taking (or not taking) action.  They can be held accountable by governing bodies when failure to administer or enforce the rules correctly results in an incident where one or more parties seeks recompense in some form.  When it is their livelihood that is at stake, they automatically impose a standard upon themselves which they must meet, as the consequences of failing to take the correct action may result in serious consequences for themselves, not just others.

Applying the above to the sport of harness racing, which has the inherent danger of killing or seriously injuring its participants, and particularly rule N15 as quoted, the use of the word 'may' begins to sit uneasily with me.  When you take into consideration also that the individuals who enforce and administer such rules are volunteers, some of whom are very new to the sport, it makes me wonder how a rule which allows such scope for discretion can be allowed to continue in its current form, when it is frequently not enforced in situations that clearly require it to be.

Before I go any further into examples or possible amendments to the rule, I must state that I have no issue with discretion being utilised in the application of rules. The main rule that requires the use of discretion in harness racing is that which applies to the use of the whip. What can look to one person as someone beating the living daylights out of a horse can look to another as though the horse is responding with each strike.  'Excessive use' is subjective and as such no hard and fast rule could be applied, so the stewards will be awarded a level of discretion.

As much as animal welfare should be at the heart of racing, with all due respect the rules regarding whip use are not a matter of life or death, and as such a discretionary approach to their application is acceptable.  However, rule N15 relates to the behaviour of horses during a race, which in this writer's opinion, can be as serious as a matter of life or death, or at least serious injury to both horses and drivers.

Many people think the sole purpose of qualifiers is to prove that a horse can pace (or trot) a mile in the requisite time - and while this may be an element of it, the primary purpose is actually to prove that a horse can behave in an acceptable and safe manner in race-like conditions, so as not to be a danger to itself or others in an actual race.  The qualifiying time at Corbiewood as of the 2015 season is 2 minutes 14 seconds;  most horses are capable of pacing in this time without making a mistake. However, many races, even at maiden and novice level, are won in or around 2.10, with fields of up to 8, and therefore the scope for inexperienced horses to make mistakes is increased.  Rule N15 allows for stewards to monitor inexperienced or 'dangerous' horses, and should they feel it necessary, these horses may be required to re-qualify (i.e. run in a qualifier to prove their manners or ability to complete a mile in the qualifying time again).

Throughout my travels across the country I have witnessed a number of cases which in my humble opinion should have been dealt with using N15(c) & (d).  Breakers which have shown no regard to where or when they gallop; whether it be behind the start car, mid-race or the final eighth; on the rail, parked, at the head of the field or the rear. Horses which gallop so violently that they go up in the air, veer sharply either right or left and which have fortunately only hampered other runners and not yet caused a serious accident.  I have witnessed a horse break 7 times in 10 starts.  I'm no mathematician, but at best that would include two consecutive races where the horse galloped, and at worst seven consecutive races.  As a horse owner and trainer, and with a connection to several drivers at Corbiewood, the obvious dangerous behaviour displayed by this horse was enough for me to speak to the stewards about possibly exercising their right under rule N15.

They chose not to, although the owner/trainer was given a warning that that would be the next step.

The problem I have with that is that the next time, which is the time that the stewards are monitoring the horse and it is on its final warning, could be the time that it causes an accident which results in sombody getting seriously hurt, or worse.

If rule N15 was not discretionary, i.e. it was worded 'must' or 'will' instead of 'may', there would be fewer opportunities to wait for an accident before dealing with the problem.  As it stands, we are essentially waiting to shut the door after the horse has bolted.

Somebody who has been in the sport a lot longer than me told me that the rule as it stands is not the issue, but the lack of enforcement is.  I appreciate that, but I believe that it is not enforced more regularly partly because of its wording.  There may be also be issues about stewards not wanting to 'punish' people they are associated with, as no steward in the country is not associated to one stable or another by some tedious link, but I believe it more to be that stewards are not, or maybe cannot, be held accountable for their lack of action under this rule as it is currently worded.  The same knowledgeable individual also explained that the rule worded as I have suggested would be difficult to enforce due to the number of grass tracks in the UK;  in America if a horse breaks, apparently it must re-qualify, but they race solely on hard tracks over there.  Personally, I see no difference with regard to the standards required from horses on any surface.  There is no weekly racing on the same grass track;  if a horse breaks in consecutive races at different grass tracks, the track cannot be held responsible.

I should not be able to attend any meeting in the UK and identify horses that will gallop prior to the races being run.  Alarmingly, I am very often correct.  That I can see the culprits, and also foresee the possible danger they present, should mean that others can.  I have lost count of the number of times people have said before a race: "if XXX doesn't gallop, it wins".  Pacers (and trotters) are NOT supposed to gallop. The fact that we are even discussing its potential to gallop means that on some level that horse is not safe to race.

Under the amendment that I am suggesting, my own horse Merrington Missile would have been made to re-qualify last season.  He was ill-mannered at the start of a race and if presented behind the start car too soon, would become unruly and the driver, whilst fighting with him to settle, would inadvertently put him off stride.  This was an issue that, had I been keeping the horse, I would have needed to address.  But I wasn't keeping him.  He was sold as a rider long before I needed to address the underlying problem that was causing my horse to be a hazard in a race.  As a conscientious owner, I would have addressed the issue, whether it was pain-related or lack of education or a required tack change.  Alarmingly, not everyone seems as interested in addressing the problems which make their horses gallop.  They appear to cross their fingers and hope for the best.

With this cavalier attitude rife in the sport, the responsibility then falls to the stewards to police it.  The rule is there so that they have the support of the governing body when doing so - and yet they still seem reluctant to.

I would like to see the rule amended so that the stewards are compelled to pull horses back into qualifiers if they do not meet the criteria.  The sport is inherently dangerous as it is; even if all horses in a race pace (or trot) and behave impeccably, due to the speed at which they are travelling, the tight gaps that drivers try to exploit, the instant nature in which decisions are made, accidents still happen.  There is a responsibility on those who govern the sport and those who administer and enforce the rules to reduce the chance of an accident as best they can.  The only element of discretion should be whether or not the behaviour, i.e. breaking, is induced by a third party.  Some horses never make mistakes of their own accord, but can be hampered so badly by another that they go off stride.  They should not be punished for this.

Furthermore, I would like to see a reduced qualifying time for those required to re-qualify under rule N15.  Most horses are able to behave whilst pacing a 2.14 mile, however when asked to race in sub-2.12 miles can falter badly.  I believe that the re-qualifying time should be a minimum of 2.12, if not faster (these times relate to Corbiewood; at York racing rarely goes slower than 2.05 so a re-qualifying time of 2.08 where the qualifying time is 2.10 would be suitable).

For the first time in any of my posts, I am requesting feedback.  There is a function that allows readers to comment; I am unsure if this requires you to have a Google account, but this is a discussion and I would like to know the thoughts of others.  I am considering approaching the BHRC about this matter prior to the AGM for it to be discussed on a national level; having already canvassed them to review the qualifying times at the hard tracks in the UK with success, I am hopeful that this would be something that the BHRC would consider.

I want to know what the pitfalls are in my proposal.  I want to know if there is any way that it can be improved or amended; or if the idea is simply not a very good one at all.

Know this - the reasoning behind this is not to punish horse owners and trainers; it is to reduce the element of danger within the sport.  Everything I do or suggest is with the best interest of the sport at heart.  I do not allow personal feelings towards individuals cloud my judgment, I am not out to seek revenge.  I do not like everybody in the sport, and I would be foolish to think that everybody liked me, but I would not wish harm on any horse or any individual who shares this common passion with me.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you on this. It's ridiculous to be able to go to a meeting and know which horses are going to break (and put themselves out of the race) before it's even started. It's something that needs enforcing for the safety of all. It doesn't look good for the sport and it's quite a farce at times. People complain about trotters galloping but the pacers are as bad - there's one horse in particular at the meetings I've been to this year that is downright dangerous and quite a few people have commented on it's galloping, but still it competes, and it will cause an accident. If a horse breaks for a genuine reason - interfered with, hopple snapped, slipped on wet track - then discretion can be used, but I think it's something that needs changing so stewards have to be more vigilant with.

    The same can be said for horses that regularly finish tailed off and outside of qualifying time in their races even without breaking. I seem to remember the stewards at Appleby a few years ago saying some horses had to requalify for that reason, someone complained that they weren't being fair and then they didn't bother after that.

    Apologies for having a bit of a rant, but I've been appalled at some of the races, and just to highlight another safety issue is when things are blatently let slide. Earlier in the year the qualifier was meant to run before the final at a grass meeting to include a driving test. The horse got into the final so the stewards allowed the horse to be jogged around the track for a lap as they'd already seen him in his other driving tests and signed the paperwork!