Shortcut by stewards is not ideal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2004, 12:00am

The Jockey Club's stipendiary stewards took an unusual shortcut through their workload at Sha Tin last Sunday and it's to be hoped the exercise has created neither a precedent nor a trend.

In the eighth race, Wayne Smith's mount Healthy Fruits was terribly wayward and shifted ground sharply on three occasions under pressure in the straight. On each of the two occasions he ran to the left, away from Smith's right-handed whip, he severely hampered favourite Super Ideal.

Now, depending on your reading of the race, Super Ideal may have actually won had the interference not occurred. But taking the more conservative line, he would certainly have finished much closer than the 13/4 lengths he finished behind Successful Spirit.

Stewards departed from normal practice by concluding the matter using video footage and stewards' observations alone. Neither Smith nor Coetzee was called to give evidence.

And therein lies the problem. Without calling the jockeys, how could the stewards be 'comfortably satisfied' - to use their favourite expression - that they knew everything there was to know about the incident?

What if Coetzee had been calling to Smith, in anticipation of trouble, before getting knocked down? There could have been any number of pieces of evidence that the experienced Coetzee and widely travelled Smith might have placed before stewards and, by extension, the betting public. But they were not given the opportunity.

And without interviewing Smith, how could the stewards be sure his actions in hitting Healthy Fruits a third time with the whip, after experiencing such severe reactions to the first two attempts, were safe or reasonable?

There are some other interesting aspects to both the race and the stewards' report. It said '... near the 300m [Healthy Fruits] shifted out abruptly and caused some inconvenience to Super Ideal which as a result was steadied.' Video watchers will maintain the terms 'inconvenienced' and 'steadied' are very soft for the grade of interference involved.

Stewards reported that Healthy Fruits subsequently 'shifted out abruptly again and caused further inconvenience to Super Ideal, which was again steadied, then [Healthy Fruits] shifted back in and caused some inconvenience to Super Charge and Good Heart in the run to the line'.

Again, analysts will have reservations about 'inconvenience' being applied equally to the very real interference suffered by Super Ideal, and the relatively inconsequential shift of Healthy Fruits back towards the other pair. They were at different ends of the interference spectrum, yet received the same description.

Earlier in the race, Shane Dye escaped with a 'severe reprimand' for shifting in quickly before the home turn, after making a dash around the field on Good Heart.

The stewards' recorded: 'Prior to straightening, Silverbird was steadied away from the heels of Freebird which, when laying out, was steadied to avoid the heels of Good Heart [Shane Dye] which shifted in when not properly clear. In the circumstances, it was decided that Dye should be severely reprimanded.'

Circumstances? What circumstances? The report leaves us to guess as to what those circumstances may or may not be. But the stewards' decision and the report gave that vocal group among the Chinese press, who claim Dye is a protected species, further ammunition to vent their doubts about the way the former Sydneysider is treated.

Let's make it clear that no one is suggesting the stewards have reached the wrong conclusions, nor are we attempting to discredit or blame Smith, a hard-working jockey who conducts himself very well at all times.

What we are saying, however, is that there are established and time-tested evidentiary procedures - with which the stewards' panel is very familiar - and they should have been used, as standard practice would dictate.

Regardless of the reason, the decision to take the shortcuts and not use those procedures was counter productive and, if repeated, would have the potential to erode standards of stewardship Hong Kong has fought long and hard to create.