Talking Horses: dangerous riding back on agenda after Free Wind’s Haydock win

On 31 August 2009, Tony Culhane rode a horse called Mazzola in a five-furlong handicap at Newcastle. About 10 seconds after the start, he shifted his mount left towards the rail, bumping a horse on his inside which in turn interfered with another against the rail, which fell. At the subsequent stewards’ inquiry, Culhane was banned for 14 days for dangerous riding and ordered to forfeit his fee.

Something approaching 130,000 races have been run in Britain since Culhane picked up his fortnight off, which works out at around 1m individual rides, and yet – officially, at least – his offence is the most recent example of dangerous riding on a British track.

The idea that dangerous riding simply disappeared from our racecourses overnight in 2009 is absurd. As the trainer John Berry put it last October, when he lodged an unsuccessful appeal against a local panel’s decision not to amend the result of a race at Pontefract: “I don’t think anyone believes there hasn’t been any dangerous riding in Britain in the last 12 years. You’d be living in cloud cuckoo land if you thought that.”

But it remains the official version of events, even after an incident in the Lancashire Oaks at Haydock Park on Saturday which many observers believed would finally cross the line into dangerous riding in the opinion of the local stewards.

If you have not yet seen the coming-together between Eshaada, ridden by Jim Crowley, and Free Wind, the mount of Rab Havlin, both the side-on and head-on footage is here.

In summary, Havlin tried make ground on Crowley’s inside – a breach of the unwritten rule that you don’t go up another rider’s inner – about two furlongs out and Crowley appeared to edge over to stop him, causing severe interference in which Free Wind looked fortunate to stay upright. Free Wind, of course, not only stayed on her feet but managed to claw back the lengths she had lost and win going away, but that should not have any relevance when considering the interference.

At the inevitable inquiry, the stewards decided that Havlin had “persisted and committed for his run into an insufficient gap which was only briefly viable between the running rail and Eshaada, causing considerable interference to Eshaada and [the unplaced] Kawida, and resulting in Free Wind turning Eshaada’s hind quarters, which in turn caused both fillies to become severely unbalanced.”

The winning rider was banned for five days for careless riding, a decision which he was quoted as describing as “quite bizarre” and which also seems likely to be appealed. That does not mean that Crowley will be subject to any post hoc penalty if the appeal succeeds, but a decision in Havlin’s favour would imply a view from on high that the local stewards had erred, and perhaps offer some fresh guidance for future panels in what will always be difficult and subjective decisions.

An appeal is likely to revolve around the size of the gap that Crowley had left on his inside, whether and how long it was available to Havlin and the extent to which Crowley moved to close it off. And the appeals panel, unlike the race-day stewards, will be able to watch it all unfold, from multiple angles, for as many times as they wish before reaching a decision.

Berry, it should be remembered, argued after his unsuccessful appeal last year that local stewards are under intense pressure to keep meetings running to time, and that it “appears to be an unwritten policy that everything is just classified as careless riding, without thinking”. If Havlin’s appeal, which is likely to be heard on Thursday week, proves successful, it will be interesting to see how much longer Culhane’s dubious claim to fame survives in the record books.