Key question is whether material extent of interference exceeded the neck margin between them at the line

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2001, 12:00am

Racing at Happy Valley is never dull and Wednesday's meeting was perhaps the most eventful and controversial of the season.

It was a night that resulted in two suspensions for careless riding, a meeting convened halfway through the card by chief stipendiary steward John Schreck to warn the jockeys about riding too tight and two overruled objections.

And the fallout is still being felt as Brian Kan Ping-chee pursues his appeal against one of those overruled objections in a case which is virtually unheard of not only in Hong Kong, but anywhere else in the racing world. Kan's appeal will be heard on Thursday by a new panel likely to be headed by chairman Alan Li Fook-sum and Chau Cham Son, the deputy chairman.

No one has yet come up with an example of a similar challenge to a stewards' decision, which is usually accepted as final on raceday, and it is anyone's guess where it will leave the Hong Kong stewarding process if the decision is overturned.

What the appeal has to decide is whether Me And You should keep the fifth race over Kan's Millennium Legend. It was a close call on Wednesday, but on balance the decision seemed correct even if the disputed incident had to be seen from several angles to establish a degree of confidence in that viewpoint. There is no doubt that Me And You caused interference to Millennium Legend in the closing stages, but the key question is whether the material extent of that interference exceeded the neck margin between them at the line. The answer here has to be 'no' because Me And You seemed at least as affected by the incident as Millennium Legend, if not more.

The pair were close together for most of the mile race, with Millennium Legend in fourth on the rail and Me And You on his outside. Their first clash came early in the straight as Jimmy Ting angled out from behind Refreshingly on Millennium Legend and, with Me And You hanging in slightly, the pair came close together. That was a minor incident, especially compared to their next clash at about the 100-metre mark.

Me And You appeared to be forging clear of his rival but, as John Egan switched his whip to his left hand and gave his mount a crack, he veered right towards Millennium Legend. It looked dramatic and Me And You certainly came into his rival's path, but the interference was brief and it was not clear whether there was any contact between the pair. Millennium Legend did not appear to check stride or change legs and, if anything, Me And You appeared the more affected of the pair because Egan was pulling his mount back to the left even before he reached Millennium Legend and then continued to drift left in the run to the line. Meanwhile, Millennium Legend ran on virtually the same line and did not appear to be making enough ground at the line to warrant a reversal of the placings.

Comparisons have been drawn - not least by Kan - between this case and the recent griffin race in which Indubitably Bliss was promoted above Classic Master. That decision clearly opened the door to feelings of injustice in future instances of interference, but each case has to be taken on its merits. The principal issue always has to be whether the result was affected, and in the Classic Master case he took Indubitably Bliss halfway across the track while his rival still managed to make up about 1.5 lengths and finish only a neck behind. On Wednesday the balance of probability was in Me And You's favour and it is hard to see how the appeal panel can arrive at a different decision.

It has been suggested that the victim should always be given the benefit of the doubt in cases of interference, but if that were the case results would be turned upside down every week in this ultra-competitive environment where a certain level of contact is inevitable. The argument that changing results in favour of a wronged party would stop a win-at-all-costs mentality among jockeys does not hold water. If that policy was adopted, it would be against the interests of first and foremost punters, but also of owners, trainers and jockeys. Results should be decided on the track, not in the stewards' room.

What protects the sport from descending into chaos is the policing of jockeys under the code of riding, and on this point there was an interesting case in the first race on Wednesday involving Douglas Whyte. The championship leader, riding the eventual winner Key Largo, found himself in a pocket on the rail with a horse full of running. He had two choices: to check back and come wide for his run or to look for a way out of the pocket. Whyte chose the latter, and he clearly pushed Winwin Combination on his outside to make the gap big enough.

It was a courageous and skilful ride, reminiscent of the elbowing tactics of those sprint cyclists who race at close quarters on the banked oval tracks. Whyte clearly knew what he was doing, which is why the stewards decided not to press a charge of careless riding, and he escaped a more serious charge because the leader Hero's Choice complicated the picture by shifting around in front.

The stewards issued Whyte with a warning, saying: 'Competitive riding is expected in Hong Kong, but tonight had Hero's Choice not shifted as it clearly did, such riding as he displayed on Key Largo could have been in breach of quite a serious rule.'