5th January – 2023

Happy New Year!

On Tuesday I received two e mails from stableemployees@weatherbys.co.uk. The first came with a BHA heading and told me that they had recently been informed that I am now employed on a full-time basis as an Assistant Trainer by Charlie Johnston as of 1st January 2023. That, of course, isn’t strictly true as I am employed by the limited company now known as Johnston Racing Ltd., in which Deirdre and I are now the only share holders, and have been since 1989. Charlie is employed by the same company and has been for seven years. The e mail went on to tell me about my obligations to abide by the rules of racing with a particular emphasis on ‘safeguarding’ and ‘inside information’,  two of the BHA’s favourite subjects.

The second e mail, from the same source, told me all about the Careers In Racing website, just in case I wanted to change my job having had it for two days.

To be fair, both the BHA’s licencing department and Weatherbys have been super efficient in handling the transfer of our licence from Charlie and Mark Johnston to Charlie alone. It couldn’t have been handled better but the e mails are examples of the unwieldy, and often downright illogical, rules and systems that we are all working under. The rules on licensing seem to take little or no account of the fact that many training businesses will operate as limited companies rather than as individual sole traders and that the licence holder will often be an employee rather than an employer.

It makes me wonder just how many training businesses are now limited companies or partnerships rather than sole traders, who was the first trainer to operate as a limited company, and when that was?

A much more pertinent example of the mess our rules of racing are in is the recent U-turn by the BHA on the rules relating to use of the crop (if the BHA are so concerned about public perception, why do they persist in calling this instrument a ‘whip’?). It beggars belief.  Was the review worth the 95 sheets of paper it was written on? Clearly not and that is hardly a surprise as the regulator’s approach to this issue has been flawed for decades. But what of the Professional Jockeys Association’s involvement in the review itself, their agreement with the back-hand proposal, and now their own U-turn when it turns out, yet again, that they are totally unrepresentative of the views of working jockeys? It is only a few months since we had a similar situation over weights carried and allowances for equipment that would not be included in the published weight. That was another mess and it has left us with a situation in which many racing professionals, let alone the public, are unsure about the actual weight the horses are carrying ( I believe it is now 4lbs more than published). And don’t get me started on the the changes to the rules on the employment of apprentice jockeys – also pushed through to placate the PJA against the advice of trainers – which have resulted in greatly reduced opportunities for young people to get started especially with those trainers who have proved best at nurturing talent.

Why do the BHA rely so heavily on input from the PJA when they repeatedly demonstrate their lack of understanding of so many issues and, worst of all, their apparent inability to canvas the views of their members and, in particular, their more influential members? Is it simply that the BHA lack the expertise and confidence whenever it comes to anything relating specifically to the participants?

Anyway, back to the crop and the new rules. The specifics of the rule changes are, for me, almost irrelevant. It seems that most now agree that this is principally about public perception rather than horse welfare and, to my mind, no organisation has done more harm to the public perception of the use of the riding crop in racing than the BHA (and BHB and Jockey Club before them). Every time we ban and/or penalise a jockey for his use of the crop, the public perceive, quite understandably, that a horse has been abused and its welfare has been compromised. This has been the case since they started counting strokes of the crop and dished out bans to the first three jockeys home in the thrilling 1996 2000 Guineas and that perception will be re-enforced and amplified when they increase the penalties, start banning jockeys for longer periods for the same ‘offence’, and start disqualifying winners.

We should never have gone down the route of counting strokes as there is little or no correlation between the number of strokes and the incidence of abuse. It was far better when the rules were geared to punishing any abuse of horses rather than principally being concerned with public perception. Apparently the BHA were in part swayed by the argument that back-hand use is more likely to result in horse being hit in the wrong place but the same applies to the, now long- standing, rule preventing use of the crop above shoulder height and yet the regulators are still very hot on that issue. Again, the rules are not about horse welfare.

I heard snippets of a conversation on one of the racing channels yesterday in which they were comparing our rules with those in Germany where  there are far greater restrictions on use of the crop and draconian penalties. I have also heard people, including fellow board members when I sat on the board of the BHA, cite Norway, where the use of the crop has been banned altogether, as a good example. Well, if we are aspiring to have  rapidly declining racing and breeding industries like Germany or low-grade racing as in Norway, that’s fine, put those nations on a pedestal. If you want an example of a nation whose quality of  racing  and breeding is rapidly improving, look no further than Japan.

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