Loss of lightweight heavyweights a big blow

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2008, 12:00am

The Jockey Club now has a mini crisis on its hands, with lightweight riders Anthony Delpech and Shane Dye throwing in the towel within days of each other and heading 'back to the future' to their homelands.

Each rider departed in style, saying all the right things and maintaining a diplomatic tone about their great time in Hong Kong. But two top-class senior jockeys who could each ride at the 113-pound minimum weight are collectively a heavy loss, and not easy to replace.

Officialdom at Sports Road needs to come to grips with the hard reality of the situation, that excessive penalties for failing to ride horses right to the line put each of these jockeys in a situation where they found their position untenable.

Delpech was banned for five days for failing to ride his mount, Super, right to the line, to the satisfaction of stewards, on February 2. Super finished on the outside rail, in fourth place and beaten only a neck by the third horse closer to the inside. The four-time champion and record-holding South African jockey almost resigned his club contract on the spot, but took a deep breath and held his tongue, considered his position for a couple of weeks and then pulled the pin anyway.

Dye got 10 days for his ride on Sohna at Happy Valley on January 9. It was double Delpech's penalty because Dye arguably should have finished second, and that means the result of the quinella - the biggest betting pool - was affected.

In other races, jockeys finishing a close-up sixth or seventh found guilty of the same offence have only been fined HK$20,000 because they are rightly deemed to have committed a less serious breach. Or more accurately, the same breach with less serious consequences.

Firstly, let's agree the stewards have done their job. Each jockey pleaded guilty to the offence as charged. And let's also agree there's no way we want jockeys taking it easy on their mounts in the closing stages of a race. The integrity of racing is one of its great selling points as a wagering product of international repute and must be protected.

But has the price of that protection become needlessly high and might not the policing have been done a better way?

Delpech and Dye each decided they'd had enough because these long holidays are a death knell - it was Delpech's second long stretch for the season and he hadn't yet recovered from the effects of the first. If there was what we might call 'truth in sentencing', and a jockey could resume after his time was served, otherwise unaffected, it wouldn't be so bad.

But that's not the reality of the situation. Big stretches on the bench like these are career killers in an ultra-competitive environment. Opportunities dry up, other jockeys win on horses the suspended jockey would otherwise have been riding and those winning riders are then retained. And when a jockey resumes from a long suspension, he's at a clear disadvantage for quite a few meetings compared to his race-fit rivals and gets fewer chances anyway as he starts almost from scratch, building his base again.

A few seasons ago, Hong Kong let go of arguably the world's number one lightweight at the time, Craig Williams. Why? Because of this concept of 'untruth in sentencing'.

When Williams was given an extended suspension for failing to give his mount, Trust Me, every possible chance to win or obtain the best possible position in a race on the all-weather, the penalty should have finished when it finished. But no, when the time came for licensing, he was tapped on the shoulder and advised not to apply - he'd done his time but the ramifications were allowed to unofficially linger on, and on.

Yet no one believed Williams was anything less than a very honest rider, who had a momentary brain snap that day on the enigmatic Trust Me. But all the positives that Williams brought to the table were allowed to go down the drain because this was not his first offence of this nature.

There was massive poetic justice when Williams returned to Australia to become David Hayes' stable jockey and win two Melbourne jockeys' premierships, not to mention a Golden Slipper and a Cox Plate for good measure. And wouldn't he be welcomed back with open arms right now!

Delpech had his first day back riding in South Africa on the weekend and landed a Group Two winner at Turffontein. He'll carve them up at domestic level after his period on the international stage, his skills further honed riding alongside the best of his compatriots here as well as Brett Prebble, Christophe Soumillon, Gerald Mosse, Darren Beadman, Olivier Doleuze and Eric Saint-Martin, etc.

Dye has struggled ever since his near-tragic fall in June 2006. But no rider can do much without opportunity and however limited Dye's opportunities had been before the Sohna incident, they were going to be further thinned out by his 10-meeting absence.

So what then should be done? In cases like Dye and Delpech, where the stewards are comfortable that the offence was one of carelessness rather than any deliberate integrity breach, surely a hefty fine would suffice.

A withdrawal of, say, HK$100,000 from a jockey's bank account might have them flinching, complaining and even cursing, but at least they'd be back next week hungry to earn the money back and put things right.

The current policy has inflicted a level of punishment far beyond what might have been intended, brought legitimate careers grinding to a standstill and, perversely, ended up punishing the Jockey Club almost as much as the riders themselves.