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Dobbin's leaving present was poor show by jockeys 16/4/2008
Greg Wood

The first thing to say about Michael McAlister's ride on Lord Samposin at Carlisle last week is that he found himself in a place where few of us would choose to be.

Professional Jockeys Association
A few yards in front of him, on the odds-on favourite Ballyvoge, was Tony Dobbin, just seconds away from the end of a long and distinguished riding career. Off to his left was the winner's enclosure, where dozens of Dobbin's friends from the weighing room were hoping to lead the applause as he returned after one final victory. And underneath him was a horse which, despite hitting several fences, was running on stoutly while the favourite seemed to be looking for the line. What's a boy to do?

McAlister's decision, in the opinion of the stewards, was to take it easy on the run-in, thereby ensuring that the Dobbs Finale and Future Best Wishes Novice Chase got the winner that everyone - in the weighing room, at least - seemed to want. In particular, he switched his whip, even though Lord Samposin was running as straight as an arrow, and let go of his reins in the process.

This is something that happens from time to time, as anyone who backed Giant's Causeway in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic knows. Mick Kinane got into the same sort of mess at the same stage of the race, just as he was rousing his horse to maximum effort, and no one would ever suggest it was anything but an unfortunately timed mishap.

McAlister's ride was different, though, if only because you could sense the relief from the saddle every time Lord Samposin made a mistake. The jockey noticeably upped his work-rate when his partner hit an obstacle, presumably in the belief that his challenge had finally started to peter out. Yet every time he did so, Lord Samposin responded willingly, which led him to his excruciating moment of truth half a furlong out.

Perhaps it was all just a mixture of illusion and misfortune, but if so, McAlister is the unluckiest jockey in Europe. The odds against him dropping his reins in the closing stages alone must be 100-1, which is beyond reasonable doubt never mind the balance of probabilities, and that is before you factor in this race's unusual circumstances.

The Carlisle stewards referred the decision on McAlister's punishment to the British Horseracing Authority's disciplinary committee, and since he has effectively been found guilty of race-fixing, there is little doubt he deserves a ban. But what the panel should also bear in mind if and when they hand down their sentence - which could, in theory, be suspension for many months - is that McAlister's offence is merely a symptom of a deep-seated belief among many in the weighing room that the punters simply don't matter.

It is why they feel they have the right to hand out the odd race here and there, either to mark a significant retirement or as a "well done" present for a brave return from serious injury. It is also why you will frequently see horses given tender rides into fifth or sixth when they might otherwise have made the frame. The consequences for betting-shop punters are never considered and it is an attitude that needs to change.

Riding thoroughbreds in races, particularly over fences, is one of the most demanding and dangerous professions in sport, so it is little wonder that those involved tend to stick together. But there is a difference between camaraderie and an us-and-them approach which, in effect, uses those dangers as an excuse for the occasional prize-giving ceremony.

The Jockeys Association recently rebranded itself as the Professional Jockeys Association, and hopes to promote its members as the sport's public face. It may take more than a slightly different name, however, to guarantee the sort of automatic professionalism that would not put a young jockey under such pressure to conform.

McAlister had a choice last Thursday, and he decided to be unprofessional rather than risk being a pariah. He took the decision, and will take the penalty too, but others must share the blame.
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