The “wrong gates” matter on last Saturday probably highlighted just how staid and mechanical racing has become in Hong Kong – there are so few racing, betting or procedural scandals these days that some of our counterparts in the Chinese media were apoplectic at hearing what had happened.
Ambulances were almost called over concerns for their welfare, and that foaming at the mouth has continued in the couple of days since, with much of the discussion centred around whether stewards should have called the race off and refunded bets, and whether the starting staff should be let off the hook for the error, as seems likely.
Yes, it was unusual, granted.
In Australia, where there are just under 19,000 races each year, we could find media reports of a similar incident occurring there only twice in the past five years.
One was at a meeting in the New South Wales country town of Casino in May, 2008, when stewards became aware after a race that two horses had jumped from the wrong gates and they voided the race, returning all bets on the race to punters.
Because a no-race was declared, all traces of it were wiped from history – arrrgghh … that little chestnut again – so it is difficult to know where the horses involved finished or if stewards had determined that the wrong placement in the stalls had made a difference at the finish. The stewards’ own description of the matter on the day was brief, unenlightening and concluded with the revelation that a report would be made to their supervising body.
At Brisbane’s Doomben racecourse, a somewhat higher tier of racing, something similar occurred on August 20 last year, with the horses jumping from transposed barriers and subsequently finishing seventh and a close third.
Ultimately the stewards declared correct weight on that one, determining no difference to the outcome and the two jockeys were fined. Doubtless a review report was made.
On the weekend, it was the latter pattern that prevailed at Sha Tin, with the outcome considered unaffected, the jockeys fined and a report to be made.
As far as the blame goes, while there will be a feeling throughout the strata of racing fans that surely the starter holds ultimately responsibility, the rules are fairly clear.
The starter reads out a list of the horses and their barriers and, having satisfied that part of the process, is no longer involved. The jockey is required to hear and remember that he starts from such and such a gate and to ensure that happens.
We have been told by different jockeys, however, this part of the loading procedure often pays only lip service, litreally, to the matter.
Some horses, those to be loaded late for reasons of their temperament, for instance, may be staying well back from the gates to keep them calm and the jockey is out of hearing range.
There is no requirement in the rules for the starter to speak clearly, in the general direction of the rider or riders or even in a particular language. Read down the gates and names in Swahili or Basque and you’re blameless.
Still, it is a process that is so successful over many thousands of races that it almost invites laziness on the part of all concerned, and that is all Saturday came down to – someone wasn’t paying enough attention, and under the rules, the jockeys get the blame.
But did it require anything as drastic as the declaration of a no-race?
We have trouble with that one and it seems to be driven only by the vested interest of those who backed unplaced runners and would have liked a refund.
The positions in running of both Frederick Engels and Simple were unaffected to any degree, nor their finishing spots, and the stewards got it right in declaring all bets still on. Doubtless a review will take place but we don’t forecast much changing – if you tweak the rules for everything that happens once in thousands of races, you’d never have the same set of rules for more than one meeting. Yes, it was highly unusual – and that’s why you don’t legislate for it.
We can only wonder how excited everyone might have got had the incident involved two horses which finished in dividend-bearing positions. Now that’s the stuff of stewards’ nightmares.