It was the best of times, it is the worst of times – so wrote Dickens and it is this
description we could apply to Frankie Dettori’s journey from elation to despair as the photo finish in York’s Nunthorpe Stakes at York this week. An easy mistake to make when your mount is flying, you are riding a furious finish, and you are mugged by another horse on the blind side. No fault – just a mistaken belief he had crossed the line first. This is a man who is one of the best judges of pace, a man who has almost single-handedly dragged racing into the entertainment business it needs to be in order to survive. His signature flying dismounts; his constant smile, even on bad days; his ability to entertain and communicate with the public – all things we love to see and racing needs to make it more attractive to a new or more diverted audience. Many people have no interest in racing, but many of them know Dettori – if only from his spell on A Question of Sport, or a regularly heard name when the “once a year” fashionistas attend Royal Ascot.
Yes he has his faults. He has freely owned up to being a “disappointment” and a “let down” to his family and to his supporters when he was found guilty of drug use, and served an 18 month ban – uncomplaining, making the best of his time off, still a major figure in racing. He is human, he admits his faults, he knows what Frankie does reflects on racing and so even in adversity he ensures the sport he loves is not harmed.
Yet the vitriol we saw on social media, the ridicule that he suffered both from mainstream press and from some elements of the public when he suffered a nose length defeat this week was terrible. He could not have fought harder – he lost to a better horse on the day and mistakenly thought he had won – but elements of the Twitterati went for the jugular and ridiculed him for no reason. I dread to think the poison he received through private messages from punters who lost their bet on the favourite. It is a poor show for a man who gives so much joy, who rides better now than ever, and who puts others, and his sport, before himself.
Contrast this then with Davy Russell and the infamous Tramore incident. Thirty-eight year old Russell is a consummate rider, a great ambassador for jump racing both in Britain and Ireland. and a man for whom many of us have a soft spot since he was seemingly dumped by the O’Learys’ Gigginstown outfit as their retained jockey despite
giving them some of their biggest wins to date – and at no cheap physical cost to himself. He has fought back and is rightly revered by punters and by his fellow professionals. It is for this very reason that his punching a horse deserves more than a warning, as handed out today by the Irish racing regulator.
Rightly there was a Twitter storm on the day, and once again today. There was no comment from Russell, the stewards did not see the incident, the Irish Turf Club gave a non-committal response to the effect that they would “look into it”, and many racing figures jumped to his defence with the same lack of evidence used by people who were demanding immediate suspension and worse. At the time, I voiced my concerns that irrespective of whether the horse was hurt or not, irrespective that many of us have been faced with a recalcitrant horse and have lashed out in defence or temper, the images seen on TV and spread across the internet can do nothing but harm the reputation of racing.
It looked ugly, it looked fairly damning, but it needed investigation and it needed action – not immediate but after due process and proportionate in ultimate punishment, if the evidence was indeed as we saw it. Davy Russell has obviously said he did indeed punch the horse. Why else would he be quoted by the ITC today as being “remorseful”? There is no reason for remorse if you did not do something, and if you did then maybe you should make a statement to that effect instead of hiding behind your mates. One has to ask if he is remorseful for the act or for doing it on TV and being found out.
I am not a wild-eyed animal rights activist. I am a breeder of horses, a lover of racing and an admirer of those who choose to climb on an animal running as fast as a car – and then jumping a number of 5 foot fences in the case of Davy Russell’s career. I work daily with these animals from the day they are born and through to when they, hopefully, retire. I understand they can be thorough-going bastards if they want to be, but I also know that punching them is not the way to change that behaviour or that wrapping them in cotton wool and ignoring it will teach them either. Firm but fair, tough love.
I have read comments by “horsemen” that it does not hurt a horse to punch it. Tell that to the head shy horse that has been beaten around the nose and skull. I have heard that Davy is a great ambassador for the sport and this is out of character – well fine but that if anything means he needs to be dealt with even more severely in order to dissuade those who look up to him that such behaviour is acceptable, or that being a “good guy” will place you above the rules set for others. But of course, those rules, if they existed in the first place, no longer apply – a precedent is now set. Worryingly, I had an interaction with a conditional jockey who said he agreed Russell “should have got off with a warning”. When challenged, he said he knew it was wrong but “everyone makes mistakes. Yes he was wrong but move on.” So does that conditional jockey now think he can do the same? Worse still, does he think he will have a career in racing when the public see this poor response from the industry and decide it is a sport they can no longer follow?
Frankie Dettori was found guilty of drug use – a charge he admitted – and because his reputation invariably meant he brought racing into disrepute, he served a suspension probably higher than average. He has come back and more than made amends over and over. Davy Russell punched a horse on live TV, he makes no public statement and admits nothing, he has made the pages of newspapers who long ago stopped printing racing stories and none of this warrants so much as a few days’ suspension? Cruel? – even if the horse did not suffer it is indeed that. Disrepute? – you bet! We don’t want a lynching, we and the wider public just need to see justice and to send a message to others inside and outside racing. We tell the public that racehorses are looked after better than any other animal. If we allow even these pampered horses to be punched by professionals, then what message does that send to the kid with a scraggy pony, or a petulant rider with an equally petulant sports horse?
So whilst the horse appears to have suffered no lasting damage, the same I fear cannot be said for the sport. We do not help ourselves. We laugh at heroes and support villains. We do not understand that even if the horse is not hurt, the sport is.