Under Starters Orders?

First Cheltenham, now the Grand National. As the eyes of the world focus on British racing we once again manage to cock up the start of a race. Subsequent finger pointing, reminiscent of the playground, between the starter and jockeys has served to make the situation even more farcical. The whole blame culture surrounding the National start strikes me as a power struggle between jockeys and officials.

The jockeys attitude seems to be “I will make sure I get a good start, after all nothing will happen.” Therein lies the problem, the starter doesn’t have any real authority. He can report any jockey who disobeys his instructions to the stewards, however all they can do is impose a minimal fine, where is the deterrent value in that, when the potential jockeys earnings from a race are a great deal more?

It is harder to stop a recurrence of the first false start when a horse charged the tape. However to have horses standing with their heads over the tapes is inexcusable and can be stopped immediately. The solution, place two markers ten yards behind the starting tapes and no horse may pass this point until the tapes have been released. Any jockey who infringes the rule is fined 50% of the jockeys prize money for first place in the race, or his / her riding fee, whichever is higher. If a jockey commits the offence more than three times in a rolling year then they face a mandatory seven day ban. In other words hit the jockeys where it hurts most, in their pockets, they will soon start to comply with the rules. In introducing this rule there must also be some common sense as well, there are occasions when horses do run away from their riders and this could be considered a mitigating factor. If a horse is persistently unruly at the start it should be dealt with in a similar way to flat horses who cause troubles in the stalls.

False starts are not the only issue. When you look at the end of a race, the final places can be decided by looking at a photo finish. In contrast, how many jump races start with many lengths separating the first and last horse away? It will be argued that with the distances covered in jump races, horses who are behind at the start can make up the lost distance during the race. I turn back to the comments of National starter, Peter Haynes who, in a BBC Radio Five Live interview, said one of the reasons for the delayed start was he wanted to give all the runners a fair chance. How does this reconcile to all the staggered starts that are seen day after day at national hunt courses around the country?   In flat races a tape is run across the course behind the stalls to prevent horses backing off too far. Why can’t the same system be used in jump racing. Have the starting line, with “no pass” markers ten yards back and a tape a further ten yards behind that.

I accept you will never get a totally straight line without using stalls, which is not at all practical for jump racing, at least no horse would start off more than ten yards behind the others.

Racing has many knockers out there, most we will never win over, others we could attract to come racing. We need to get more people racing, however to do this we need to put the sport across as being professionally run. When our showcase races, and I am talking Cheltenham here as well as Aintree, cannot even get off to a reasonable first time start, the unitiated will consider racing to be an amateur joke and will lose interest. Nobody will win.

One final plea to everyone involved in Saturdays’ debacle … put away the egos and work together to resolve the issues with starting races. It is not rocket science.           

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