IT’S BEEN eleven years since jockey Paul O’Neill, enraged at his mount City Affair’s unruliness on the way to post for a Stratford selling hurdle, lurched forward and delivered a head butt to the recalcitrant mare.
Following a quickfire apology, O’Neill, a snug fit in the category of journeyman jumps jockey, was handed a one-day riding ban, the lenience of which – in days before social media became judge, jury and executioner – prompted barely a murmur.
But by August 2017, horse racing authorities had become more skittish. So when Gold Cup-winning rider Davy Russell, far closer than O’Neill to a household, transcendent sporting name, felt compelled to mete out his own brand of punishment to the misbehaving Kings Dolly – a punch to the side of the animal’s head – the question of a fitting punishment took into account fears of an online public outcry in the incident’s aftermath.
Nobody could argue the Russell footage – like O’Neill’s, picked up on the At The Races TV cameras – looked “good”. But neither could racing’s witheringly protective inner circle deliver a widespread condemnation. Indeed, they preferred to err on the side of the defence, delivering platitudes akin to football’s leading trope of “he’s not that kind of player” in the aftermath of a dangerous two-footed challenge.
What followed was a punishment hokey cokey as ponderous and awkward as it was inadequate. It was led by the Irish Turf Club (ITC), a governing body as familiar with protracted investigations and judicial U-turns as its UK equivalent, the British Horseracing Authority. Russell’s first penalty was a slap on the wrist for his slap on the horse’s head – a caution, a sentence at odds with racing’s ever-obsessive approach to perception.
Then, following referral by the registrar Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee, it was revealed there would be a review. The announcement prompted Denis Egan, head of the ITC, to insist “there’s no feeling whatsoever that my authority has been undermined”. Really? Listen closely to the outtakes of “The Office” and you can make out David Brent saying the same when confronted by the looming presence of Neil from the Swindon branch.
The appeal body used precedent drawn from a couple of similar cases from Flat racing, both of which took place between O’Neill’s and Russell’s moments of madness. The appeal body settled belatedly on a more appropriate five-day ban, reduced to four following consideration of the stresses and strains brought upon the guilty party’s family.
That Kings Dolly, recipient of the blow, wouldn’t have felt it doesn’t really wash. And nor should Russell’s otherwise impeccable record. A human striking an animal was a glaringly unedifying incident.
This was an offence that demanded a swift punishment and an even swifter apology. Instead it’s taken weeks for a satisfactory conclusion. And those awaiting a ‘sorry’ from Russell seem set to suffer for a while longer yet.
By Richard Northgate
Image: JOCKEY PAUL O’Neill head butts City Affair on the nose at the start of a two-mile hurdle race at Stratford on July 23 2006. Photo: At the Races.