Seeing yellow, or not, as the case may be
Sandown’s void race fiasco
Before dissecting the fiasco that was Sandown’s final race on Saturday, let’s not forget the sad circumstances which brought about the situation.
The Venetia Williams (pictured) trained and Toby Blackwell and Carolyn Mackay owned 12-year-old Houblon Des Obeaux suffered a fatal heart-attack heading to the 12th fence of the London National.
He’d been at the Williams’ yard for nine years and none will feel the loss of a battling favourite among racegoers more than groom Fran Hargest and daily rider Jerry Roberts.
Possibly a small comfort is that such things happen swiftly.
Attendance to the stricken Houblon Des Obeaux was immediate. The decision that the race needed to be voided was taken as soon as it was clear that, just yards from the fence and with limited room to circumvent the obstacle, there was risk to both those with the horse and the other runners in the race.
With a yellow flag being held at arm’s length by a racecourse official further in front of the fence, the signal was unequivocal. The race was now void.
This however, led to the first aspect of the proceedings which was far from satisfactory. Confirmation that the race was void took over 30 minutes to be communicated. It could and should have been announced much earlier.
The BHA has said that any further such inquiries will deal with the void race aspect separately so that it can be announced at the earliest opportunity, and continue to deal with any other issues which arise as appropriate.
Despite the yellow flag being held in an extended arm by the official, seven of the nine remaining jockeys raced on, jumped subsequent fences and rode out to the finish. Two jockeys pulled up.
Those seven each received a 10-day ban, claiming they did not see the yellow flag. They did however see that the fence, where Houblon Des Obeaux lay stricken, should not be jumped. What’s more, they heard the warning whistle being blown.
There might have been better visibility if the racecourse official with the yellow flag was more noticeable, perhaps wearing a white coat like those worn by officials positioned down the course to warn of a false start.
Are there mitigating circumstances? Could a yellow flag could have been waved earlier, somewhere down back straight?
Sandown has three yellow flags to deploy – it’s each course’s call how many there should be.
Should there be more?
Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday, Sandown Director of Racing and Clerk of the Course Andrew Cooper said: “People might think there is one [yellow flag] at every fence. There is no racecourse in this country that has a yellow flag at every fence. Why is that? That means 12 or more yellow flags in circulation.
“This piece of equipment has a highly important consequence of being deployed and it’s been deemed, with BHA support, you need an appropriate number of yellow flags to anticipate circumstances as they might arise.
“But you don’t want a proliferation of yellow flags around the course, in often very stressful situations, and the scope for error is increased. I wouldn’t want a yellow flag at every obstacle. I think it is unnecessary.”
Could a yellow flag on the back straight have been deployed by a racecourse official, the back straight flag-man, to stop the race?
Cooper said, “The final decision [to void the race] from me was given at a time the horses were basically running past him turning into the back straight. He was never in a position to deploy his yellow flag.”
Subsequent comments (or, being wiser after the event) centred on the colour of the flag, suggesting that a red flag is more logical for alerting jockeys that the race has been declared void.
Quite possibly, but only two flags are deployed – a chequered flag warning that part of the track needs to be circumvented, and yellow which means the race is void. And yellow is easier to see in murky light than red. That’s why hi-viz jackets are yellow.
None of this was satisfactory, but the split-second situations with which sports officials have to deal will never eradicate mistakes and there will always be room for improvement.
Let’s learn the lessons, review what could have been handled better, and change the procedures accordingly. And maybe racing’s new head of raceday officials, Cathy O’Meara (pictued), could go through every process and look to see where improvements can be made.
Even then, ours is a sport, with the participation of animals who can have a mind of their own, which will always throw up unforeseen situations and there will be more gnashing of teeth when it’s deemed things could have been dealt with better.
But let’s not beat ourselves up over it.
Meanwhile, the jockeys will argue their case at the appeal but getting their bans overturned (they’re already at the minimum end of the penalty scale) isn’t something I’d bet on.
Split screen selling Irish racing short
Not for the first time, Racing TV has said it would review the circumstances behind their coverage of Irish racing.
This time it was the John Durcan Memorial Chase at Punchestown when the feature race was subject to being shown on a split-screen.
The track’s general manager, Conor O’Neill, who is also chairman of Horse Racing Ireland’s media rights committee, said he was “very disappointed” regarding the split-screen as well as the lack of commentary.
He’s not the only one. There are those in front of the Racing TV cameras who are unhappy with the situation.
It was a problem also in evidence on Saturday, when racing from Aintree was subject to a split-screen sharing pictures from Ireland. It can be assumed that not everyone at British tracks is enamoured with the situation.
Last year, Aintree and Sandown were treated as a double-header by Racing TV and much was done on course to give equal billing to the two fixtures, with their respective attractions of two Grade 1 chases in Surrey and two races over the National course at Liverpool. But not this year.
Having to show Irish racing got in the way of that
It was a consequence of entrusting the media-rights negotiation by Irish racecourses to SIS that the contract went to Racing UK and, for the duration of the deal, it is what Irish racing is stuck with.
Just like the sport in Britain, Irish racing is going to feel the pinch from betting shop closures and subsequent reduced media rights.
The question for the next contract, will terms be imposed on how the pictures are shown (a far from easy requirement with which to comply) or will a pay-for-view partner be chosen who has the capacity to do Irish racing justice, but not necessarily with the highest bid?
I’d risk a punt that Racing TV keeps the contract and it’ll be lip service paid should complaints continue.
No justification for a £5 racecard
Not for the first time, Sandown has taken advantage when hosting a feature race meeting, in this case the Tingle Creek Chase, and jacked up the price of the racecard.
It might be argued that the racecard gave equal billing to the races both at Sandown and Aintree. But, at £5, it didn’t represent good value, coming it at 76 pages of which over 20 were adverts.