The whip row with Paul Struthers

 

The whip row with Paul Struthers.

Next week marks the 11th anniversary of an interesting and successful act of diplomacy that helped put an end to a whip dispute that had been going on for a long time. We need a reenactment, please!

During a conversation with Paul Struthers, the new owner of Moya Sport, the Front Runner was reminded of this fact. He became the Professional Jockeys Association’s brand-new chief executive in February 2012. He had a new opposite number at the BHA who was also new, Paul Bittar, and the two of them met at the beginning of that month to talk about the hot topic at the time.

“It gets forgotten,” Struthers says, “but that whip furore had been going for five months. Paul and I sat down and we pretty much got it cracked.” As he recalls it, the modified version of the whip rules which they agreed upon “lasted ten years without, really, a good deal of complaint, apart from too much naval-gazing in my view from within racing.”

According to historical accounts, the two Pauls removed some of the starch from the rules, which had been tightened in October, in order to make them more practical. Bittar said in a statement, “While well intentioned, and in accordance with initial requests from the jockeys for clarity and consistency … in practice the new rules have repeatedly thrown up examples of no consideration being given to the manner in which the whip is used as well as riders being awarded disproportionate penalties for the offence committed.”

The following is quoted from Struthers: “This change recognises that a grey issue cannot be proportionately and fairly regulated by a black and white rule.” All of this sounds very relevant to the arguments that are currently raging once more as our sport begins to implement a new, more stringent whip policy today.

It also serves as a good illustration of the kind of expertise and experience Struthers brings to his new position. He left the PJA at the end of 2021 and took some time to think about what he wanted to do next. He is now looking for clients, and he hopes that some of them will come from racing.

I hope it goes well because I have often benefited from his insights over the past 20 years. You may recall that before joining the jockeys, he worked at the Jockey Club, the BHB, and then the BHA, including as head of communications.

His website features glowing words from Ryan Moore, a hard man to impress, who says: “Paul led the PJA brilliantly in his ten years in charge. He knew his stuff and what he was doing, anticipated issues, had our best interests at heart and I trusted his judgement and advice completely.”

What does he offer prospective customers? Basically, it’s bringing together my expertise in crisis communications, stakeholder communications, sports integrity, and welfare over the past 15 to 20 years.

“I’m trying to help people improve their processes, help them build better relationships and enhance reputations, through the experience I’ve had. Whether that’s representing athletes in hearings or lobbying or regulatory change or managing significant PR crises or potential crises.

“Not many people have worked for both a player association and a governing body or regulator. There will always be an element of friction between a governing body and the players. You’ll never get away from that.

“As much as I could stamp my feet and wasn’t shy about going public with issues when I was at the PJA, when I felt that was what needed to happen, we fundamentally had a really, really good relationship with the BHA.” He hopes he can show others how such fruitful working relationships can be built and maintained.

“There is friction that could be avoided, often in my view because there’s an inability on the part of governing bodies to apologise for things. And this isn’t unique to sport, you see it a lot in politics and in business.” Approvingly, he cites the recent apology by British Gas’s Chris O’Shea.

“I’d love to get some clients in racing and hopefully will because I still really love the sport. It’s obviously worrying, about field-sizes in jump racing and the prices of favourites at Cheltenham and entries for the Grand National. Equally, I still think there are opportunities for racing and there is a healthy future for it.”

The whip issue will need to be resolved once more if that healthy future is to be achieved. It’s clear that Struthers thinks it’s a mistake to remove stewards’ discretion, which had previously allowed them to disregard a jockey’s use of the whip in certain situations. For instance, in a jump race, if the whip was used to correct a horse that was running down an obstacle or after a jumping error, it might not be included in the calculations.

“Now all that discretion’s gone. That is going to be really, really hard because it was hard to deal with before.

“When I took over at the PJA in 2012, discretion had been removed between October and February and jockeys did not get used to it. It was a fixed limit until Paul and I agreed to bring in some discretion, which was never as much as I thought it should have been but it was welcome all the same.

“They will undoubtedly get used to it because jockeys are a remarkable group of men and women, who are so adaptable to change and cope so well with pressure, but it is going to be very difficult. It will make riding hard, thinking about what they are having to do.

“I would take very short odds on this happening, that during Cheltenham there will be a mini cottage industry on social media of people counting how many times jockeys used the whip in every race. There will be jockeys who are so petrified of getting a significant ban that they may only use the whip four or five times and leave a couple of uses up their sleeve, lose by a narrow margin and get criticised for it, either in public or in private by connections.

“The next two to four weeks are going to be a real test. I think it will be a period of pain, particularly for jockeys. The doubling of penalties in Class 1 and 2 races is huge. You only have to go two over at Cheltenham and you’re looking at a 14-day ban.

“For the life of me, I can’t see how that is remotely proportionate. But too many people in racing convinced themselves it [a whip rule breach] was effectively jockeys cheating and getting rewarded for it.”

 

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