If common sense really is a collection of prejudices then the stewarding we’re seeing on Ireland’s racecourses is a perfect reflection of the diversity of prejudices among officialdom. Which is all well and good: except its leading to a desperate confusion that makes the logic of professional stewarding even more hard to argue with.
There are professional stipendiary stewards in Ireland. The problem is that their role is purely advisory to a transitory collection of amateur volunteers who ultimately have the call on who gets what in the steward’s room.
The Turf Club argues that this system is financially sensible and also contributes to a perception of impartiality because there is no financial imperative on such amateurs. There is also a theoretical argument to be made about a constantly revolving panel of stewards diluting the possibility of a certain over-familiarity between officialdom and the games top professionals.
That sounds fine in theory, except for one thing: in reality, it is delusional. Most stewards are picked because they have a knowledge of the sport – not much point having them otherwise. But that knowledge is usually acquired through practical involvement in the horse game, and often professional involvement, be it in ownership, sales, management, or any number of other ways.
The practise is that stewards occasionally excuse themselves from enquiries if they have a direct involvement with the person up in front of them.
But how many stewards have an in-direct involvement, either professionally or personally? How many have an interest in not rocking the boat?
Even if they don’t, the perception is that they have. And it’s not just urban myth that stipes have clearly directed stewards towards one course of action only to be forcefully reminded of who is really in charge.
The result is a fundamental distrust in what goes on during enquiries, and the belief that there is one rule book for a small but powerful group of racing luminaries and another for those without the clout to take the Turf Club to the High Court.
Professional stewarding might not be a panacea. The possibility of compromise and ineffectiveness will always be there, although regular performance reviews could help counter that.
However a small but select panel of full-time professionals prepared to make hard calls, and crucially backed up by Turf Club HQ, would at least bring a consistency of interpretation that is badly needed, while at the same time implementing the rules without recourse to such a vague and suspicious concept as common sense.
The fallout from the 2011 Grand National was far-reaching in terms of the whip but it could be the dwarfed by what happens on the back of Aintree 2012.
Two more deaths, one of them Synchronised, the most high-profile horse to be killed in the race since Alverton in 1979, have propelled the race back to the forefront of the news agenda and forced racing to face up to some home truths.
The National Hunt game fundamentally sells itself on ‘thrills n’spills.’ The National especially is special because of the lottery element. And that demands fallers. And if horses fall, inevitably some will pick up fatal-injuries.
That presents the ethical dilemma of whether or not it is right for dumb animals to be asked to risk their necks for our entertainment.
By definition those involved in the industry have concluded, if they’ve asked themselves the question at all, that they can live quite happily with that quandary. Whether the wider public can is another matter that could fundamentally alter the face of the Grand National.
Crucially the RSPCA has said it wants to see further alterations to the famous drop fences at Aintree but continues to see a role for the race. That such a body believes that is crucial, and in the overall future context of jump racing, at least some of their views on the National should be taken seriously. If racing needs anyone on side right now it is the RSPCA.
On a much less important topic, forty eight hour declarations will be tried today for Dundalk on Wednesday. No doubt that will provoke some ire among trainers and jockeys but how hard can it be? After all it happens every Friday for Sunday. But what’s interesting is the motivation behind it – bookies and France Galop.
The future has many shapes and forms.
One of those forms could be the handsome shape of Don Cossack. Gordon Elliott’s comments after the horse won his third bumper at the Irish National meeting were admirably evocative.
The last time this corner heard such erotic praise of a horse’s talent were when Aidan O’Brien threatened to break a hole into his bedroom wall for One Cool Cat.
That ended in anti-climax. Here’s hoping Don Cossack and Elliott reach the heights.