Sack the stewards

Racing should adopt football’s VAR

There are enough aphorisms in racing to fill a book. It doesn’t really matter that most of them are nonsense — such as, “Always back the outsider in a three-horse race”. If you do that the chances are you’ll just be making regular contributions to the bookies’ benevolent fund.

But they’re not all wrong. I long ago realised that “Always listen to Ruby Walsh” is a pretty decent approach to understanding what’s really going on, and what should be going on.

Walsh isn’t just one of the most stylish and intelligent jockeys who ever sat on a horse; since his retirement, he has become just about the most insightful and pithy racing analyst around. His comments on races put to shame most of what passes for analysis in other sports.

So when he speaks, we should listen. Especially when he says something that cuts through some of the “it’s always been done this way” sterility that is the basis of so much in racing.

In his stint with ITV at Royal Ascot, Walsh put forward the view that stewards’ enquiries are an anachronism. Instead of the long, drawn-out process that takes place after a race — with the dreaded wait in the winners’ enclosure to see if the result will be changed — with evidence from jockeys followed by the stewards debating what action, if any, to take, Walsh suggested racing needs learn from VAR in football, DRS in cricket and TMO in rugby.

Any decision should be taken immediately after a race, based just on a swift look at the video and the result announced before anyone has even made it into the enclosure. That would mean, of course, no involvement from jockeys.

The British Horseracing Authority has allowed parts of some enquiries to be televised since 2010, mainly at prestige meetings. They are fascinating to watch on their own terms, but especially so as they make Walsh’s case for him. I defy anyone to watch an enquiry and think that’s the best way to decide if a result needs to be altered.

the idea that racing is somehow special and different and so can continue to exist in a bubble of tradition and sterility is what keeps racing in that bubble

Some jockeys are more eloquent and convincing than others in putting their case, but every enquiry follows the same pattern. The rider of the winner defends his riding and his horse, and the rider of the runner-up says interference cost him the race. Every single time. Of course.

Imagine if a football referee asked for verbal submissions from players before awarding a penalty or sending a player off. What would that add except chaos? The referee uses his eyes and his brain to make a judgement — and now, thanks to VAR, that judgement is then checked against a video of what happened.

VAR might be annoying in breaking the flow of a game but it has (generally) stopped flagrant mistakes. And if there is an egregious mistake over a booking, a club can appeal afterwards.

The idea that footballers — or rugby players, or cricketers — should advocate for or against a decision by the referee during the game is ridiculous. But that is exactly what happens in racing.

Jockeys add nothing of value to the process. If stewards are unable to reach a view based on what they can see on video, how can the testimony of a jockey with a vested interest be a sensible basis for them to then reach a decision? Either the evidence is there to be seen one way or the other, or it doesn’t exist.

Walsh’s idea was, of course, laughed at. As if you could take something as sophisticated and specialised as a stewards’ enquiry and compare it to VAR! But the idea that racing is somehow special and different and so can continue to exist in a bubble of tradition and sterility is what keeps racing in that bubble — excluding ideas and reform that might broaden its appeal.

It’s what will destroy racing as a sport which, let’s not forget, depends on revenue from bookmakers, who are themselves a clear target of government, and which has continually to defend its very existence from attacks by those who think it cruel.

Innovation is no longer a dirty word everywhere in racing — the Shergar Cup is now firmly established and the Racing League is doing its best to shake things up, for example. And the reforms to the programme in 2024 will be a huge change.

But for all those who are keen to experiment and see if something new works, there are many more who would much rather stick to the way things have always been done. Even if that means, at best, atrophy.

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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