Stewarding and Interference

07 Aug 20

Chief Regulatory Officer Brant Dunshea discusses the recent comment around interference.

I have read with interest and discussed with many across the industry concerns that have been raised over recent weeks in relation to interference in races.

Some have commented that the way the penalties are being applied by racing stewards provides insufficient deterrent to a win at all cost attitude, whilst others have suggested that Britain should adopt the approach seen in the US where, irrespective of the circumstances, interference should be deemed a “foul” and the offending horse and Jockey ought be disqualified or demoted.

I would like to take this opportunity to say that, in my view, our stewards are applying our rules and penalties correctly, and in line with our priorities of keeping racing clean, fair and safe.

I want to start by saying that I believe that the standard of race riding by jockeys here in Britain is exceptional. This is a group of people with a passionate sense of camaraderie, and the safety of fellow riders and horses is clearly of great importance to them. This is an approach that is nurtured through our racing schools, tutelage from trainers, and the BHA’s jockey coaching programme. The stringency of a nation’s penalty structure is not the only factor in determining whether its participants compete safely.

Moreover, I believe that the standard of officiating in Britain is something the sport should be proud of. When I first worked as a racing steward almost 30 years ago, it became quickly evident to me that the job was at times a thankless one. However, my motivation for working as a regulator was, and to this day remains, striving to do what is best for the sport I am deeply passionate about, and to do so objectively, without fear or favor. In overseeing the BHA’s stewarding function, I see those same motivations across the length and breadth of Great Britain.

In 2017 I was tasked by the BHA Board with implementing a new model of stewarding, one approved by the Board which blended the best features of our unique historical system with the features of a more contemporary approach adopted by other sports and racing jurisdictions. During the three years since, every steward in Britain, paid or voluntary, has completed a bespoke competency-based training programme and has been required to pass an objective assessment of their competency.

British stewards, both paid and voluntary, come from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. These include former jockeys and trainers, senior members of stable staff, lawyers and many more. They are practical people, conversant with the rules, and hands-on horse people who understand what they observe and hear.

The current debate around interference is a fascinating and instructive one, and we thought it would be aided by explaining what happens in the stewards room on a race day.

When interference occurs the initial task of stewards is to establish whether the interference warrants an amendment of the placings. This requires the team to determine relatively quickly whether, if not for the interference, the sufferer would have finished in front of the horse causing the interference. Ultimately, applying this approach, the best horse on the day should be the one that wins. This is the approach supported and promoted by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) and consistently applied across the majority of leading racing nations.

It is often stated that “in this country” the rules are different and a horse would be more likely to be demoted or disqualified elsewhere. However, other than in the US and Canada, every major racing nation applies the same model as here in Britain. In fact, other nations such as Japan, France and Germany have all transitioned to the British approach over recent years, with all observing the number of interference enquiries decreasing significantly as a result.

In terms of whether the power to demote horses is applied stringently by British stewards, it may surprise some people to learn that, since February 2019, there have been 31 instances where a horse has been demoted due to causing interference.

Once the issue of the placings is determined, stewards will then turn their attention to dealing with whether, on the balance of probabilities, a riding offence has been committed, and take whatever time is necessary to do so. Interference in races will always occur as an inevitable consequence of skilled professional jockeys riding to the limits of what is acceptable. We must also remember that horses are not machines who always run in perfectly straight lines – they can, and sometimes do, make unpredictable decisions of their own. However, our ambition must be to have in place a regulatory system which ensures that if those riders push beyond the limits there are sufficient deterrents in place to reduce the likelihood of it happening too frequently. That is what our stewards do consistently when they impose a sanction on raceday. Suspensions are not “holidays” as they are often referred to, but instead are penalties that take away a jockey’s livelihood for a period of days.

These deterrents were reviewed and amended as recently as 2016, with the BHA working with the PJA and the jockeys themselves following an approach from the PJA. As a result, manoeuvres which ought to have been obvious would cause interference carry with them more significant penalties. Indeed, there has been a doubling in the number of these more significant (7 day+) penalties since this new guidance was introduced, showing that the penalties are being imposed consistently and firmly by the stewards.

The final stage of the process is the ability for jockeys to appeal any decision handed down to them on a racecourse in front of an independent Disciplinary Panel. These appeals take the form of a rehearing of the incident.

It is notable that, since the Disciplinary Panel was restructured in 2017, the success rate of appeals in front of the Panel has been significant, with suspensions being overturned the majority of the time. Just like some of the recent media comment, it is fair to say that we have not always agreed with the decisions of the Panel or their reasoning in reaching decisions. The ability to appeal racecourse decisions is an essential part of a regulatory system, and this proves that the Disciplinary Panels are truly independent…but at the same time it can be challenging for our stewarding teams when the suspensions that they do impose are frequently overturned on appeal. It is possible that this, in turn, could have a knock-on effect on rider behaviour.

Overall, the interference rules are one of those aspects of racing that are always going to be a topic of debate, and we welcome the recent discussion. I am confident that the sport shares common goals around our rules and how races are ridden, with safety being the overriding consideration of everyone involved. I also have confidence in our rules and the way they are being applied by our stewards.

However, it is a subject we constantly monitor, and if ever our participants felt that their safety was being put at risk, or evidence and data showed that action needed to be taken, then we would not hesitate to look at the situation again. We would also urge any riders who have concerns to contact us, or the PJA, to share their views.