Jockeys' guilt must apply in disqualifying rogue horses
The decision to disqualify Heading To Win at the National Day meeting last week has dramatically, and apparently irrevocably, changed the course of action previously taken by successive panels of Hong Kong stipendiary stewards.
It has been possible to find only one case, involving former champion apprentice Simon H. K. Yim, where a horse was disqualified for what was a gross piece of riding.
Another case involving Bart Leisher where the horse was disqualified was not solely at the instigation of the stewards as the other rider involved on that occasion, Philip Robinson, also objected.
The Heading To Win case will now go down as a landmark piece of Hong Kong racing jurisprudence, but it does raise pertinent and disquieting questions.
The stewards' decision, not unnaturally, produced heated comment in the immediate aftermath, but it is right to review it now - both in the general and the specific - some days after the event itself.
A vital consideration must be the protection of the interest of punters, an issue which should come second only to safety on the course considerations. And it can be immediately stated that all and any action taken by the stewards for safety reasons is totally welcomed and utterly endorsed.
The stewards decided to disqualify Heading To Win under Rule 133 (ii), which is an unsatisfactory, catch-all rule.
It can be used as a prop for weak stewarding in that it does not require the stewards to make one extremely tough decision - the depth of the culpability of the jockey involved.
It is my firm contention that a careless riding offence is not of a sufficiently serious nature to sustain a decision to disqualify a horse.
A distinction is made in other racing jurisdictions and a horse should only be disqualified if the jockey has been guilty of, at least, reckless or irresponsible riding.
The public had every reason to be surprised - and aggrieved - that Heading To Win had been disqualified because his jockey was only guilty of careless riding. That particular charge, if not mundane, is an almost weekly occurrence. Statistically, it would be of some interest to know how many careless riding offences have been committed in the past 12 years as opposed to one disqualification of a horse.
There are degrees of careless riding, of course, and in the specific case of Heading To Win no one suggests that the major incident was not serious.
But there is more than perception involved here - there is basic logic. A careless riding offence is not necessarily overly serious, disqualifying a horse most definitely is. Therefore, one cannot logically follow on from the other.
Under Rule 133 (ii) it can - but that makes this particular rule and its usage in this instance unsatisfactory.
As the media was informed after the Heading To Win hearing that this was now the benchmark and consistency in dealing with similar offences would be ensured, it must be assumed that any future cases will be brought under this rule.
For the benefit of all concerned, the punting public, owners, trainers and jockeys, the stewards of the Jockey Club should decree that, in future cases, no horse shall be disqualified - in cases such as this - unless the jockey has been guilty of a more serious offence than careless riding.
This draws a very clear line that protects the interests of the betting public and ensures that the stipendiary stewards will take the very grave step of disqualification because there can be no doubt whatsoever that the jockey involved has been guilty of a serious breach of the Rules of Racing.
There were suggestions in the aftermath of the inquiry that jockeys, with much hinging on the outcome of a race, would be prepared to suffer a suspension as long as they kept the race. Thus the decision to disqualify would make any jockey think twice. It might, but it certainly does not help the punter.
However, if a jockey, local or expatriate, is charged with reckless riding - or worse - then his future in Hong Kong racing is surely not bright.
Ultimately, he can be refused a licence and none riding here is prepared to take that risk.
In the case of Heading To Win, had it been mandatory for a jockey to be guilty of reckless riding before disqualification took place, then the Lawrie Fownes-trained horse would have kept the race.
Steven King was guilty of careless riding as he came across most noticeably from his extreme outside draw. It was an offence that merited suspension - but it was not reckless riding.
Specifically, the incident involving King leaves a niggling doubt.
From the head-on and rear-view patrol films - most helpfully shown to the media after the inquiry - King is the culprit and, of course, it was a serious piece of interference.
My niggling doubts centre around Bravado and the lateral view of the incident.
Bravado, on Heading To Win's inside, was blinkered for the first time and is a wayward customer. That horse, rather than its rider, might well have been an accessory to the crime. When first shown, the immediate reaction in the press box was that Bravado had actually moved in first - and not necessarily because he was being pressured from the outside.
The side view suggests, too, that King on Heading To Win may have been sufficiently clear of Bravado to suggest that the knock-on, domino process had already started before King added to the squeezing element.
While this has much relevance to the unfortunate King, who is sitting out five race days, it is not the major point at issue which is the decision to disqualify Heading To Win.
It was a decision honestly taken, but it was not necessarily a courageous one as it was taken under an unsatisfactory piece of racing legislation.
What the stewards have done is sound a clear and obvious warning that some of the almost cut-throat riding that we have seen on Hong Kong's two racecourses will not be condoned. That is good.
What will make it better is that any future disqualifications will be based on a jockey's actions so serious that we will not see him on a racecourse for a considerable period of time.
Unless the stewards can be satisfied fully on that point, the wrong people suffer.