The relationship between the regulator and the sportsmen and women in any professional sport is potentially a difficult one. It doesn’t help that conflicts between those who set the rules and those who have to abide by them are inevitably magnified if played out in front of the media.
Regulators are there to be shot at, at times unfairly. But it is their job to stay true to the principles of fairness, honesty and balance in dispensing penalties that are proportionate to the transgressions committed and to take criticism on the chin.
The damaging whip issue which has raged throughout the national and racing press over recent weeks illustrates what happens when a regulator gets it wrong. It also shows how important it is to get the process right when you formulate and apply new rules, especially in an area which polarises opinion, fuels emotion and has the potential to create universal discontent amongst the sport’s performers and inevitably, bring racing into disrepute.
It is no secret that the BHA did not get this process right. Of course, they were right to recognise that something needed to be done about the whip. They were right to act on a general belief that racing’s image was being tarnished by a perception, however misguided, among a section of the public that it was cruel to hit horses with the whip, and they were right to want to introduce a new set of rules that were clear and unambiguous. Neither could anybody argue that they lacked focus and care in putting together a comprehensive document about the new whip rules.
All that was understandable, but where the BHA fell down was on process and consultation. Certainly, there were discussions of a sort with the all the main parties in the sport before the new rules were issued and, of course, they consulted with the Professional Jockeys Association – though, as it turned out, this consultation did not go nearly far enough and in the event proved flawed.
Where the BHA fell down was on process and consultation
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now easy to see the nub of the problem that has caused so much bad publicity for racing and bad feelings among racing’s professionals and fans. The BHA did not have a clear enough understanding of what the new rules would really mean to jockeys, in terms of the harshness of the penalties and the ludicrous expectation that jockeys could change their highly specialised approach to riding overnight.
One of the lessons that should be learnt from this whole sorry episode is this. When something so deeply affects the livelihoods of a group of professional sportsmen and women, the regulator, in this case the BHA, has a duty to understand the sportsmen and women’s profession. In particular, we can all look back and wonder why the BHA did not have a former professional jockey who was experienced in race-riding on their review committee.
Additionally, the regulator should have made those affected by the new rules fully appreciate the consequences of transgressing them. It is now clear that the jockeys did not fully appreciate what the consequences of these new rules would be and, by the time they did, it was too late.
The regulator may argue, as the BHA has done, that rules are not a matter for negotiation with the participants of the sport, but, in the light of the BHA’s recent welcome shifts on whip penalties, negotiation is exactly what appears to have happened.
We continue to feel uneasy when we are asked why the BHA did not set up a trial period during which many of the problems could have been eliminated before the proper implementation of the new rules; and we can think to ourselves why, before all this started, was there not a real PR campaign to educate the British public about the application of today’s cushioned whips in racing? Indeed, why is there not such a campaign now?