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Image of racing suffers as Russell incident is allowed to drag on

The Thursday column

Back to work: Russell puts off Grand National celebrations to ride a double at Tramore
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Here's scenario A: a jockey arrives at the show hurdle before a race, the horse is a bit frisky and stops at the flight so suddenly the jockey is forced forward in the saddle. A second or so later the jockey delivers a right-hand jab to the back of the horse’s head.

Now here’s scenario B: a racegoer backs a horse who is defeated in a photo-finish. Worse for wear after a day on the beer, he hops over the rail by the winner’s enclosure and delivers a right-hand jab to the back of the runner-up’s head.

In scenario B the world would unite in horror. Racing fans, racing professionals and people with no interest whatsoever in the sport would watch the video, which would be widely circulated on social media and mainstream news providers, and agree that the attacker was a despicable character who would deserve whatever punishment came his way.

Thankfully, scenario B has not happened and hopefully never will.

Scenario A has, of course, happened. It took place at Tramore on Friday. The horse was Kings Dolly and the jockey was Davy Russell. Google ‘Davy Russell video’ and you’ll see it if you haven’t already.

But unlike in scenario B, the reaction to Russell striking his mount has been astonishingly mixed.

Some people expressed their disgust at Russell’s action while others have shown a strong desire to defend the jockey and claim that the incident amounted to precious little, to the extent that anyone who was upset by what they saw was a hysterical creature who should calm down.

This is, of course, the way of the world. Some people believe Brexit is the saviour of the UK and others are certain it will cripple the economy. Some people see a tackle and claim football is a contact sport and others scream for a red card.

But I have to say I am left with a feeling of acute disappointment that there are so many people keen to trivialise the incident, which shocked me when I first saw it and has never left anything other than an unpleasant taste in my mouth in subsequent viewings.

The theory that the horse will not have been affected has been widely voiced and, while I am prepared to accept that people who ride and handle horses as part of their job know far more than me about that, I can’t help but think that even if horses don’t feel any pain from being punched or whipped we should be looking to punch and whip them as rarely as possible because it doesn’t look very good to the outside world.

And if anyone in the outside world saw some of the messages defending Russell that would not have looked very good either.

For example, the highly respected David Redvers, racing manager to Sheikh Fahad, tweeted: “Find a horseman who claims he has never hit or kicked a horse and you will find a liar.”

I’m presuming by hit he meant give a quick corrective slap and by kicked he meant give the horse a quick heel in the belly, but it was not a remark that anyone who does not understand what handling large farm animals entails (i.e. most people) will have found especially attractive.

More graphic still was the quote from Irish writer Brian O’Connor, who said: “Many moons ago during a brief real working life, I stupidly delivered a beauty of a right hook to an absolute cow of a mare who’d made it clear she wanted to get her retaliation in feet first.”

O'Connor went on to explain “my hand hurt for days - on the horse the impact was nil” but I find it astonishing that he chose to describe his punch in such a way.

As with the whip, racing people have to realise public perception matters and you must be seen to be treating horses as lovingly as we always claim they are when we defend the sport in the face of a barrage of bile after one of the Grand National runners does not make it back to its stable.

Another odd aspect to this sorry incident is that so many people refuse to pass judgement because they claim we do not have the full facts. Yes we do. The footage is clear. Russell punches the horse - the only doubt is the precise extent of the force with which his hand connected with Kings Dolly’s head.

Anyone claiming they are not sure if Russell actually connected would take a different view if someone aimed a similar blow at one of their children.

In a way Russell is unlucky. Just as he set his right arm in motion the rider of the horse that had been partially obscuring him from the camera moved aside, giving us a clear view.

But the idea that there could be another side to the story is daft. Did the horse mock Russell’s haircut seconds beforehand? Did it owe him money? No.

One organisation that has been disappointingly slow to react while everyone else has had their say is the one body that needs to get its act together - the Turf Club, which is looking into this incident at a lamentably slow tempo.

Three days after it happened, a spokesman said they would speak to Russell over the next couple of days and “hoped” to talk to Roger McGrath, who trains Kings Dolly, which is simply not good enough. This needs sorting out as soon as possible.

And Russell, such a popular, charismatic rider, should have apologised days ago and accepted whatever punishment is coming his way.

I constantly admire how jockeys control horses and how brave they are just to sit on them as they hurtle around the course at such high speeds, and I’m happy to accept that sometimes you need to be a bit tough on your mount to get them to do what they need to do.

But what happened at Tramore six days ago, and what has been said and not said since then, has amounted to a sorry episode and the sport in general, and Davy Russell in particular, needs to ensure it goes an extremely long time before it next shows off such an ugly face to the outside world.

More on the Davy Russell case:

'No malicious intent' with Kings Dolly – Power defends Russell

Comment: Russell let himself down in a moment of madness says Richard Forristal

Russell decision set to be made before the end of the week

Big-money fight fans being sold a pup

Even if I was the sort of person who gets excited at the sight of two people punching one another, which I am not, I would not be remotely interested in spending tuppence to watch Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor on Saturday.

Fair enough, you may reply. If you don’t care about the fight, jog on and leave everyone else to look forward to it.

Sadly it is impossible to filter out this farce of a contest and carry on with normal life, oblivious to the many depressing aspects of what is not a sport event in any sense but purely a money-making exercise.

As well as the compliant media energetically promoting the fight (including my normally sane chums on this very organ’s sports desk), you cannot walk along a corridor, sit on a train or glance at your phone without stumbling across a debate about what is going to happen.

It saddens me that proper showdowns that have taken more than a century to establish their position as important components of the sporting landscape are treated as mere sideshows compared with this irrelevant clash.

And it amazes me that people who are so thrilled at the prospect of one of the all-time great boxers going into the ring with someone with as many rounds of professional boxing under his belt as me cannot see how blatantly they are being taken for a ride.

Their willingness to believe this fight is taking place because Mayweather and McGregor hate one another rather than because they stand to make upwards of $175 million between them is staggering. 

Almost as staggering is their supposition that it is likely to be a competitive confrontation. This is the most baffling aspect of the whole pantomime.

Mayweather has won all 49 of his fights, most of them effortlessly as a consequence of his outstanding defence and awesome skills. He has fought all the big names he could have been pitched against and beaten them all.

McGregor has proved himself a superstar in the cage-fighting world and you can only admire the fantastic success he has worked so hard to achieve, but he is now entering a whole new world.

To suggest the Irishman has a realistic chance of inflicting Mayweather’s first defeat is like believing Kevin Pietersen would hit three home runs in his first ever baseball match or Michael van Gerwen would land the javelin gold in the World Athletics Championships.

He has a puncher’s chance but so has everyone who took on Mayweather and they all found it’s not worth much if you can’t actually land a punch on your opponent.

Mayweather is 40, 11 years McGregor’s senior, and has not fought in 23 months, but the fight will surely last as long as he chooses and no longer.

The latest betting suggests Mayweather might actually become a big enough price to tempt me to get involved, but I shall resist, because I detest the attention this event is being given when proper boxing fights struggle for the limelight.

The reality is that as long as neither fighter sustains significant punishment, when the duel is over there will be two winners in the ring, both even richer than before, as well as many others outside the ropes, including both entourages and the companies that will share the broadcasting riches.

The losers, meanwhile, will be falling into bed, bleary-eyed, as the dawn chorus begins, wondering why they bothered to stay up so late to see such a one-sided disappointment of a fight.

In any contest any outcome is possible. It might be an epic battle with both men climbing off the deck to carry on swinging. But my strong suspicion is that millions of people with a thirst for violence will be dismayed by what happens between two people with a thirst for money.

As with the whip, racing people have to realise public perception matters and you must be seen to be treating horses lovingly
E.W. Terms
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