If you want to see the sorry state of how racing is run in the year 2015, watch the interview in which Lydia Hislop asks Jamie Stier to explain the chain of events that happened at Ascot last Saturday http://www.racinguk.com/video/watch/speculative-bid-bha-interview
Bing Bong! Which of the Monty Python Flying Circus cast would play Stier? Eric Idle, I fancy. Or maybe Michael Palin. No, I think it should have been the late Graham Chapman. He could best imitate the utter hopelessness of Stier during that mild interrogation.
Lydia Hislop can be far tougher than that. Trouble is, she didn’t need to be. Stier, director of raceday operations and regulation at the British Horseracing Authority, made a fool of himself and the sport without any encouragement from her. What’s more, when she offered him the chance to apologise, he didn’t take it. That was a soft ball from Hislop. But such is the incompetence of those running the sport, he couldn’t see it for what it was. An early, golden opportunity to say “sorry.”
Lydia Hislop is a proper journalist. She asks the questions most others would not dare to ask for fear of upsetting those in racing. Lydia has upset jockeys, trainers, owners and officials of the BHA. She’s not an ex jockey. She’s not a blond on heels employed chiefly for her looks. She’s got brains and, if she’ll forgive me for saying, balls!
On Saturday, in the immediate aftermath of the monumental cock up surrounding the participation or otherwise of Speculative Bid, she tried to get a clear answer from Stier. She failed. Not her fault. Jamie Stier did not know what he was saying. As his mouth moved his brain must have been asking: “What on earth I am on about?” It was unclear to me, Hislop and anyone watching whose first language is English.
The calamity that befell punters and bookies alike at Ascot was not the direct fault of Stier. It wasn’t he who started the race in which the favourite could not start at the same time as his rivals. Speculative Bid had his head stuck and despite loud cries of “Wait! wait! wait!” from stall handlers and jockey Jamie Spencer, the starter opened the stalls.
You likely know what happened next. Chaos ensued.
The rule at the heart of the matter is called (B) 10.5 and is a relatively new one added to the rule book. Stier says it is one that works well when implemented correctly. It was introduced to allow the stewards to rule out a runner, and get a refund for the backers of that horse, if it has been “prevented from starting” through no fault of horse or jockey.
When this rule is employed it allows bookmakers to impose “Rule 4” deductions on returns to backers of the winner, which vary according to the SP of the withdrawn horse.
Speculative Bid had been well backed, in from 8/1 the night before to 4/1 before the off. If the favourite won, the bookies would take a beating. As it was the horse left the stalls much later than the others and without a jockey. And yet the bookies still took a big hit.
The powers that be declared Speculative Bid to be a non runner, leading to punters on course demanding their stake be returned (and those boys who crawl on the floor looking for wrongly rejected betting slips having a good day on track).
With the favourite named a non runner, that also meant bookies were entitled to reduce the winnings paid out to those who backed the eventual winner, Heavens Guest. There was a 20 pence in the pound reduction on returns. So that’s that then. All sorted. No worries.
Before Speculative Bid had been declared a non runner the vital words “weighed in” had been called. Once “weighed in” has been declared there can be no changes made to the outcome of the race, at least as it relates to betting.
By the time most thoughts had turned to: “What’s for dinner?”stewards at Ascot announced that Speculative Bid was, after all, a runner. I can only imagine the reaction of the bookies.
Not only had they refunded millions of pounds to those who backed Speculative Bid, which they need not have done, but now they faced the demands of those who felt short changed. Those who had backed the winner. Be it in person or by telephone or online, those punters wanted back their other 20p in each pound. And you can’t blame them for that.
It took even longer for the BHA to apologise. This is an organisation not fit for purpose. It is an embarrassment.
Jamie Spencer was the subject of criticism from one trainer in particular. I have no idea if there is bad blood or negative history between Spencer and trainer Mark Johnston. But I was struck by how quick Johnston was to tweet his dismay at the actions of Spencer.
He tweeted: “Jamie Spencer was sat on Speculative Bid until the starter waved the flag and he decides to sit on the stalls! Unbelievable! Never seen anything like that from the stewards room at Ascot. Speculative bid was in the stalls! Massive F**K UP!
Jamie Spencer has long had his critics. But I have to say I believe his actions on the day reflected his concern for the welfare of the animal. Spencer’s first thought was for the well being of Speculative Bid, and I was not surprised or annoyed by that. Not all jockeys care for horses as much as he does.
The fact remains that Spencer and stall handlers shouted WAIT! I heard them and I was sat watching on TV thousands of miles away. Strategically placed boom microphones will have ensured I could hear those cries. The starter was much nearer to the action and yet didn’t hear them. At least I hope not. I can’t believe the starter would have opened the stalls had he heard the pleas.
I’m not big on calling for people to be sacked. We all make mistakes and, to be fair, only seconds separated the cries of WAIT! from his opening of the stalls. Perhaps the starter needs a leave of absence. A holiday.
Of much greater concern to me is the bigger picture. One incident served to highlight the sorry state of how the sport is administered. For me change has to come if the sport is not to sink further into the mire. And some uncomfortable truths have to be faced.
1. The sport of racing is run by people not fit to organise the proverbial consumption of alcohol in a brewery. The BHA requires a complete overhaul. Racing is now a laughing stock among those who do administer more professionally run sports.
2. Centralised stewarding is a must. At present we have stewards making decisions at each racecourse. Be that about the use of a whip by a jockey, whether or not a horse should be deemed a non runner and, of course, carrying out a stewards enquiry into controversial incidents in a race (almost all of which are a waste of time as the result nearly always remains the same).
What localised stewarding leads to is different decisions being made about the same type of incident, depending on where the race took place and which stewards are in charge. I can think of no good reason why there should not be centralised stewarding. Can you?
3. Punters should stop expecting something for nothing. I don’t believe for a moment that my small stake should have been returned to me by the bookie.
I agree with those who say that once a horse enters the stalls, he or she should be deemed to be in the race. If the horse doesn’t come out of the stalls at the same time as the others, or at all, then we as punters have to take the hit. I’m afraid that punters are beginning to expect refunds too often.
Before the introduction of Rule (B) 10.5, bookmakers and punters understood that if a horse is, what has historically been called, under starter’s orders, it is a runner. On the rare occasions when a horse failed to leave the stalls, your bet was a loser. Simple. Painful, for sure. But we punters had to take such a rare loss on the chin.
As Dave Nevison said to Lydia Hislop on Racing UK, the new rule must now be deemed to have been a well intentioned failure and be ditched.
4. The big online bookies need to take a long hard look at themselves.
On Saturday some bookies refunded stakes on Speculative Bid even before he had been declared a non runner. They had clearly decided it would be good PR and I congratulate them for that. The majority refunded stakes in full once the horse had been called a non runner. Others dragged their feet. A couple hedged their bets and awaited further clarification.
If the current situation continues (i.e. individual stewarding decisions are made regarding non runners) then when it comes to refunds, it needs to be case of all for one and one for all. All bookies should refund the stake in full, and not as a so called “free bet.” (Shame on you Paddy Power)
5. Racing itself needs to enter the current century. Its structure and management require a total overhaul. The sport would benefit from a significant reduction in the number of fixtures and an end to the conversion of turf racecourses into all weather tracks.
Above all else we need people at the head of this sport who know what they’re doing. Racing requires people at the helm with proven ability at running a sport in a professional manner. Folk whose brains are in this century, and not the 19th. We don’t want racing run by PR people. We don’t want stewards who are only five furlongs away from propping up the free bar in heaven.
Racing is becoming ever more a minority sport. It’s not the fault of the participants, equine or human. Racing is a sport competed by professionals, but administered by amateurs.
Some well meaning people, including Rod Street of Great British Racing, have come up with innovations to improve the experience of on course spectators and punters. Many of those measures are to be applauded. He has addressed how best new spectators can be attracted to racecourses, and to watch the racing. That’s essential if the sport is to be popular beyond my generation.
You’ll never get everyone to agree on the way forward. Mark Johnston talks a great deal of sense and I agree with his comments more often than not. But he often uses the pages of his informative monthly magazine to complain about the ideas put forward by Rod Street. I think he’s aiming his slings and arrows at the wrong man.
Both men share a passion racing. They care deeply about the sport. They represent just one example of how heads need not so much knocking together, but to come together. For the future of the sport.
As for the BHA, well its collective head is firmly stuck. Not in the stalls. But in the sand.
All those who care for the sport need to demand change. And now. While the iron is red hot.