Gentleman Amateur

The Observer has an interview with amateur jockey extraordinaire, Sam Waley-Cohen:

Not many Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockeys will tell you: “There is a real conflict between what the NHS aspires to deliver across the board in healthcare and what it can afford to deliver.” But then not many are close friends of William and Kate, run their own chain of dental practices or ride the best steeplechaser in the country – for fun.

Sam Waley-Cohen is the last Corinthian: a happy amateur in a world of famished, bird-framed hard men who throw themselves at obstacles on sometimes clumsy horses for a living. Unlike Tony “AP” McCoy, the indomitable dark-eyed champion of the winter game, Waley-Cohen rides his father’s majestic champion, Long Run, as a hobby. But this year he proved that he was no longer a novelty act, sharing a weighing room with hardened pros.

In January, he won jump racing’s second-most prestigious event, the King George VI Chase, beating a field that included Kauto Star, one of the most successful racehorses of all time. Then, in March, Waley-Cohen became the first amateur for 30 years to win the Gold Cup, jump racing’s grandest race. His success thrust him to the forefront of a sport increasingly desperate for publicity. With his father’s horse at the head of his breed, the one-off challenge of trying to win at the National Hunt Festival has assumed a new dimension. Waley-Cohen, 29, put Long Run in front. But now he has to keep him there.

Yesterday Long Run was toppled and Kauto had his revenge in the Betfair Chase. Kauto Star’s connections were worried – after all this horse “should have been retired” according to the Guardian – they even photographed him in the paddock in case it was his last run. But he led all the way and came home eight lengths in front. Rematch in Cheltenham, Mr Waley-Cohen?

The Whip Banned?

Bosses of the National Hunt course at Towcester in Northamptonshire have announced they will outlaw the use of the controversial stick in all meetings from October 5.

Riders instead will race using a system known as hands and heels in which they can carry a whip but only in the back hand position and can only use it to hit the horse down the shoulder. All other use is banned.

Marcus Armytage and Martin Evans in the Daily Telegraph. I didn’t comment on this year’s Grand National or the fact that the winning jockey broke Britain’s (already restrictive*) rules for whip use; there was enough coverage elsewhere and I didn’t have the time to do the research for a blog post.

This move by Towcester comes a few months after a study published by the veterinary department at the University of Sydney and funded by the Australian RSPCA which showed that whipping made no difference to a horse’s race performance:

McGreevy and his colleague David Evans enlisted the help of experienced “stewards of racing” — officials charged with judging jockeys’ adherence to Australia’s racing rules, including those limiting the use of whips. The stewards viewed five recorded thoroughbred races and counted whip strikes on 48 animals during the last 600 meters (656 yards). Electronic sensors in the horses’ saddle blankets recorded the animals’ times and their places at the finish line.

Through a statistical analysis of the data, the researchers found, rather predictably, that jockeys began whipping their horses in the second-to-last leg of the race, between 400 and 200 meters (438 and 219 yards) from the finish line, and they whipped the animals most during the final leg, when the horses were tired and slowing down.

But by the time the whipping started, McGreevy said, whether or not the horse would finish among the first three was usually already settled.

“A horse’s performance before the final 400 meters, when it wasn’t being whipped, was the strongest predictor of its racing success,” McGreevy told LiveScience. “The highest speeds in these horses were achieved when they weren’t being whipped.”


* In addition to the rule that the whip cannot be used more than ten times, and never with “undue force and frequency”, I did not know till recently that all British racing whips are microchipped so that they cannot be tampered with and made more heavy or cutting.