Simple steps that could help resolve the whip debate at a stroke
The Thursday column
Happy though I am to possess a relatively underproductive envy gland, it would be a lie to say the possibility of being reincarnated as John Francome is not hugely appealing.
Look at him. Champion jockey, successful TV pundit for many decades, exuding happiness in everything he has done since, side-splittingly funny, dashingly handsome and always making life seem utterly effortless. The bastard.
And while he can reduce an audience to helpless, giggling jellies while conducting a charity auction with his hilarious delivery (at the recent Sir Peter O’Sullevan lunch he said while auctioning a picture: “I bought a painting the other day. It was called The Orgasm. It was only when I got it home I realised it was a fake”), he also has some serious, sensible views on some of racing’s most important issues under his bonnet.
His thoughts on the whip, for instance, should not go unheeded as the debate on its future continues to develop.
Most people have a view on whether or not jockeys can do without the whip to encourage horses to go faster, but the opinions of those who use them as a tool of their trade carry greater weight than those of armchair riders.
And Francome is adamant on this hot topic. “If this new whip doesn’t hurt them then why use it? Do away with it completely and jockeys will be able to keep horses straighter and it will be so much easier to govern and more enjoyable to watch.”
I will be surprised if anyone from the pro-whip side of the argument is able to convince me Francome’s concise summary of the situation is not the definitive view.
He, like everyone, accepts you need to carry a stick for safety reasons but not to attempt to get horses to give more than they already are. And he also sees the damage it does to the sport’s image.
“If I’m a young person coming to watch racing I’d be thinking ‘What is going on here? This horse is doing its best and someone is hitting it’,” Francome added in a fascinating interview with this newspaper on Sunday.
It has been claimed young people like those to whom Francome refers are unlikely to be interested in racing anyway, but that is simply untrue.
I watched a recent discussion on the whip on ITV’s Opening Show in the company of three young people, all of whom enjoy an occasional day at the races, and they were all aghast at the passion with which Mick Fitzgerald, Alice Plunkett and Matt Chapman argued for the whip to continue to be used for coercive purposes.
Francome calls for a one-month whip-free trial after which the situation can be assessed, but I would go further and introduce it for six months to ensure proper focus and buy-in rather than give the impression if everyone spends a month kicking up a fuss they could get the ban kicked out nice and quickly.
And here’s another thing racing should do whether there is a whip ban or not: stop calling it the whip.
Anyone who has had one of the modern air-cushioned versions in their hand will know just how benign it is. You could barely wake a sleeping kitten with it.
Calling such a harmless length of soft rubber a whip needlessly allows the public to believe it is a cruel tool that inflicts pain and suffering when the reality is it does no such thing.
I have thought for a long time it is a self-inflicted publicity own goal to keep calling it the whip but it is only recently that I came up with a better name for it, and that name is the flicker.
Those who claim jockeys still need to make contact with horses in order to maximise their performance levels say it is the rhythmic motion of the whip striking the horse’s rump rather than a resultant feeling of pain that keeps it going at maximum speed.
So the flicker sums up that motion perfectly well while acting as a far less inflammatory term than the whip.
I disagree with those who believe it is possible to educate the general public that the whip is not as ferocious as they might perceive to such an extent that there is no need for the sport to take action to further limit or outlaw its use.
But if everyone started calling it the flicker rather than the whip it would improve the sport’s image at a stroke, regardless of whether or not, in the longer term, it is permitted to be used as it currently is.
Pundits always overlook the role of luck
The more I watch football the less logical it becomes. And, paradoxically, the more people try to describe it in logical terms.
Throughout nearly a quarter of a century of being lucky enough to work with Kevin Pullein I have learned so much from the great man, but nothing resonates more than a simple four-word phrase he uses regularly in relation to football: some things just happen.
Pullein is not on Twitter, which is another illustration of his wisdom. If he was he would despair with every downward swipe of his finger in the minutes after big games have finished.
That is when the futile search for a rational narrative to describe something that is often totally irrational is at its most intense and when sensible views are as rare as a four-leaf clover.
Then there is the second wave of barmy attempts to knit a series of almost random incidents into a plausible tale as the traditional media companies post their match reports and verdicts.
These are no longer a basic account of what happened but are increasingly a bid to explain why they happened, and that’s when people start to add two plus two and get five.
More by Bruce Millington
This is not to say there are never occasions when the outcome of a match can be attributed to a certain decision or action that makes for plausible explanation.
A failure by a coach to deal with a persistent threat, clever changes of personnel or formation and key injuries can of course affect the outcome of a match.
But it is consistently overlooked just how much luck influences results, probably because saying something happened as a result of sheer chance isn’t going to make the writer look particularly smart.
The false narrative brigade were out in force on Sunday after Manchester United had beaten Tottenham at Wembley, even though a small child could have rightly concluded this was a match that might have just as easily finished as a home win or a draw.
Spurs attacked skilfully and relentlessly throughout the second half but were thwarted by a mixture of ineffective finishing and brilliant goalkeeping by United’s magnificent David De Gea. And yet the conclusion many people drew, sometimes with eloquent confidence, was that United won because caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has created a happier spirit and/or introduced a more attacking philosophy since replacing Jose Mourinho.
But on the balance of play, as borne out by Tottenham’s superior expected goals (xG) total, Spurs were the more dangerous side and can count themselves as unlucky not to have won. Equally, United could easily have produced the same performance with the same outcome under Mourinho.
I see unlucky outcomes on a regular basis, to such an extent that I sometimes wonder why I ever bet on a particular team to win.
That is why it crossed my mind this week that bookmakers, always keen to offer concessions that might make punters bet with them rather than their rivals, might consider an enticement that would offer some consolation to people who back a team that loses but comes out on top on the xG figures.
In such cases a free bet might be a clever way of stimulating customer loyalty without proving unprofitable and would have the effect of maintaining punter interest right to the end of a game the outcome of which does not reflect the overall balance of play or the quality of the chances created.
The more I have studied xG results the more I am convinced they are a far more accurate measure of how a match should logically have finished than the actual result, and certainly vastly more reliable than the views of Twitter or indeed many of the journalists who are paid to assess and interpret what they have just witnessed.
Rugby has to tackle inexcusable kit clashes
Football kit clashes have long been an inexcusable source of annoyance, with referees consistently allowing teams to emerge from the tunnel wearing colours that are, if not identical, not as contrasting as they should be.
It is particularly irksome when a team wears a change strip that is more similar to the hosts’ colours than their own home kit.
But if football has a habit of making things tricky for fans in the ground and those watching on television it is nothing compared to the laughable kit clashes rugby union tolerates.
The classic rugby kit clash occurs when New Zealand play South Africa, with the Springboks’ white shorts being the only way of telling the teams apart given how similar dark green is to black.
But twice over the weekend that ludicrous eyesore was outdone, first on Saturday night when Northampton, wearing black, clashed with Clermont, clad in extremely dark blue.
The kits were so similar the referee made one team - I was too confused to know which one - change into white shirts.
And white shirts were the problem the following day when Exeter received Castres. Exeter, whose home kit is black, somehow saw fit to change to the palest of blue kits, while Castres took to the field in all white.
With the main camera pointing straight into the sun it was literally impossible to tell who played for which team.
It is astonishing that the referees’ pre-match checklist does not appear to include the important task of ensuring the two kits are sufficiently contrasting. It is also unacceptable.
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