PJA chief in blast after controversial Jason Watson ban is reduced to five days
The Professional Jockeys' Association has expressed its "bitter disappointment" at the decision of an independent disciplinary panel to uphold the controversial decision of the Nottingham stewards in finding Jason Watson guilty of not obtaining the best possible position aboard newcomer Noisy Night, reducing the suspension to five days from seven.
Watson was handed the ban after the Roger Charlton-trained juvenile veered sharply when leaving the stalls and was left 12 lengths adrift of his rivals on his debut this month. The pair finished seventh of eight, beaten 26 lengths.
The jockey was banned under rule (F)37 for not making "real, timely or substantial effort" to obtain the best possible placing, but on Thursday that ban was reduced, as panel chair Patrick James O'Mahoney said Watson's ride posed only a "low-level damage to the integrity of racing".
The entry level for the offence is ten days while the recommended range of sanctions is seven to 21 days, meaning the raceday stewards had already exhibited some leniency.
But PJA chief executive Paul Struthers said he struggled to understand the panel's logic in upholding the original decision and questioned what Watson might have done differently in the circumstances.
He said: "We are bitterly disappointed to have lost Jason’s appeal and struggle to understand the decision.
“What does the BHA and the panel say Jason should have done? Did he need to ride hands and heels for half a furlong? A furlong? All the way to the line? Did he need to ride more vigorously than hands and heels?
"We are concerned that the BHA and the judicial panel are applying the rules with their focus on integrity, in circumstances where in Jason’s case everyone agreed he acted in good faith. This was not a ride where integrity was an issue.
“They are also ignoring the myriad shades of grey that exist within racing. Jason’s chance had gone before the race had begun and he then acted in the best interests of the horse."
Struthers added: "After today’s ruling, how does the judicial panel and BHA say a jockey may act in the best interests of the horse? A reduction of a suspension from seven to five days still represents a working week where Jason will be deprived of the chance to earn his living."
The case caused plenty of controversy at the time given many observers – including the Racing Post's close-up writer – considered the horse had lost all chance at the start of the race through his uncontrolled dive to the left, while Watson had told the media he felt victimised by the decision of the stewards.
In presenting Watson's case Rory Mac Neice lent on what he argued was a precedent established by the panel in the case of Warren Greatrex and Gavin Sheehan's successful appeal against sanctions applied under rule (F)37 over the riding of Beaufort in December 2020.
Mac Neice argued that a common sense interpretation of the rule and its associated guidance had been adopted in the Beaufort case to allow a jockey not to persist with any meaningful effort "once all hope was lost".
Evidence also included an unsolicited email sent from National Trainers Federation president Rupert Arnold to Struthers, in which Watson's ride in the circumstances received full backing from Flat trainers on the council.
The BHA's case rested on the stewards' interview with Watson on the day, during which he admitted the race was in effect over after Noisy Night had blown the start.
BHA counsel Louis Weston argued Watson had made a judgement not to persist at a very early stage and that the rule makes clear that effort is required throughout a race and that Watson could not have known what would happen to the horses in front of him.
Weston also argued – and in delivering their verdict the panel agreed – that the likelihood of reaching fourth place and obtaining prize-money was not relevant, and that there is public interest in a horse displaying its merit and being asked for its effort, regardless of whether there is a realistic chance of success.
The panel viewed repeated replays of both the Nottingham race and one at Newbury three days earlier in which Watson also had to bring a wayward newcomer back under control after blowing the start.
The Newbury stewards inquired into Watson's riding of Honky Tonk Man, noting the jockey's explanation and taking no further action.
Questioned by Mac Neice, Watson said of his actions after Noisy Night veered left coming out of the stalls: "I picked up my stick and have given him quite a significant backhander and a couple of slaps down the shoulder, moving him forward, which has then straightened him up and enabled me to get control of him again.
"I continued to niggle away with my body angled down towards the horse's head, which has enabled him to run freely, with no restraint. I quickly realised after a furlong or a furlong and a half that I am at least ten-12 lengths if not more behind the rest of the field and I am going as quick as I can because he is not restrained. His day at the races is over."
Watson described losing that amount of ground at the start as "very rare" and added: "I know how difficult it is to make up three lengths, let alone 12, especially on a first-time-out horse."
Under cross-examination from Weston, Watson argued he had made an effort at the start of the race before conceding his position was hopeless.
But Weston underlined the obligation under the rule for a rider to "do something and to be seen to do something throughout the race".
In Watson's original submission to the Nottingham stewards and subsequent interviews he pointed to the welfare of his mount as having been an issue in his decision making. But in delivering the panel's verdict O'Mahoney said they considered there to be "no welfare issues" raised by the case.
In responding to the outcome of the independent panel's deliberations, a BHA spokesman said: "The BHA notes the decision of the independent disciplinary panel and thanks them for their time in hearing this appeal.
"Our stewards do an outstanding job at meetings up and down the country every day, assessing each incident exclusively on its merits and treating all participants with fairness, without favour and putting the welfare of the horse and rider above all other concerns."
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