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Throwing the Rule Book

If your name is Willie Mullins, or you backed On His Own in the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup, I suspect I know how you might respond to the British Horseracing Authority’s recent consultation document.

Having acknowledged that Lord Windermere had unintentionally interfered with On His Own before winning by a short-head, the Cheltenham stewards decided that the result should remain unaltered – prompting Mullins to remark, “I don’t see any need for stewards at this rate of going. There is absolutely no need for them.”

If you’re one of those people that believe that all umpires are unwise, all referees are rubbish and all stewards are sh…ambolic, then now is the time to wreak your revenge. But should you?

Twenty years ago every race-meeting was presided over by a team of four stewards, many of whom were pretty long in the tooth and some of whom turned up purely for the lunch. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when their numbers were reduced by the imposition of an upper age limit. Paid stipendiary stewards stepped into the breach; a development which has almost certainly brought greater consistency to the decision making process applied during stewards’ enquiries.

The BHA’s eight-week consultation process, launched at the end of August, aims to collate views prior to developing a new stewarding model which it hopes to implement in 2019. There is an assumption, possibly incorrect, that the review is being undertaken with the deliberate intention of slimming down or disbanding the remaining battalion of dedicated stewards who give their time and expertise, free of charge, in favour of paid professionals who will cover more race-meetings and receive more intensive training.

It is difficult to argue with the objectives: to provide a fit-for-purpose modern stewarding system which applies the rules of racing with consistency and integrity. I believe, however, that a question hangs over the perceived benefits of putting our existing stewards out to grass.

Unpaid stewards, all of whom receive training and most of who dedicate at least a couple of days every three weeks to the role, are selected for the integrity, experience and reliable application of common sense – much like magistrates in your local court. They come fresh to each race-day, unencumbered by the baggage of the previous day’s and week’s racing events. They’re detachment from the every-day business of the Weighing Room makes it easier for them to assess each event in isolation.

There is a danger that professional stewards will, unintentionally, keep a running score of those participants who may be sailing close to the wind. They will form a view about personalities and lose their detachment.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe stipendiary stewards perform a valuable role. Rather like the Clerk of the Magistrate’s Court, they advise on the rules and the options available to the stewards for dealing with miscreants. But that doesn’t make them impartial or the most appropriate individuals to adjudicate on our sport.

I’m not a steward, nor am I impartial – so I don’t mind if the stewards disqualify all the horses in 4.30pm at Market Rasen on Saturday, with the exception of this week’s selection – Ballybolley. They usually make the right decision – he says, having taken 33/1 about Lord Windermere before the 2014 Gold Cup.

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