Horse Racing with Jason Hall

DESPITE the fact that the National Hunt racing calendar has been blighted by the recent severe weather conditions, there has still plenty to discuss – ranging from the sad death of an iconic racing figure to the ongoing absurdity that the current whip regulations represent.

The former four-time champion jumps jockey and leading trainer Josh Gifford passed away at the age of 70.

From his Sussex base at Findon, Gifford sent out many winners and was very well respected by his peers.

That came not only from his individuality, but also from the application of his skills and his dedication both in the saddle and later as a trainer.

Gifford was most notably able to transcend the boundaries of the sport when he trained Aldaniti to win the 1981 Grand National, a story which at the time made the front pages of every national newspaper and featured at the top of every TV news report.

The success represented a great triumph over adversity and developed into an exceedingly warm tale, not only of the talent Gifford displayed in preparing a horse that had experienced a number of career-threatening injuries, but also of the unequivocal loyalty he showed to the horse’s rider Bob Champion – who had come through a prolonged battle with cancer and who had used the thought of riding Aldaniti in the National as a driving force with which to overcome his illness.

The story is one of the greatest the sport has produced and was remembered not only in print but also on the silver screen. Gifford was one of the two pivotal figures, along with Champion, in this most heart-warming of stories.

A remembrance, or thanksgiving, service is taking place on Thursday, March 1 at Chichester Cathedral, and is is sure to be well-attended.

And it seems certain the memory of Josh Gifford will once again be evoked when the next renewal of the Grand National takes place in April.

For many, the person he was and the memories he has given will be remain with people inside and outside of the sport for many years to come.

In contrast, the harm that the current whip regulations bring upon racing continues unabated. The latest incident to highlight the inherent flaws of the revised laws was the interpretation the stewards applied when handing out a 10-day ban to Nicky Mackay after his ride on an extremely difficult horse at Wolverhampton on Monday.

The trainer of the horse, John Gosden, described the ban as “bordering on the absurd” after Mackay had won a race but – in exceeding the stipulated number of strikes allowed with the whip by three – left the stewards with little choice but to obey the rules laid down by the governing body and suspend Mackay for those 10 days.

Anyone with a working knowledge of how to race ride and who saw the race would agree it was a ride of great skill to fulfil his target of winning. In no way was the horse abused and to suggest it was is a complete folly.

It must be remembered that it was representatives of the jockeys themselves who initially pushed for a definitive number of ‘hits’ to be agreed upon. They now realise the misjudgement they made in advocating that position.

The harm it continues to do to the sport in the eyes of the wider general public is unacceptable.

But if the authorities continue to sanction the current regulations and do not return to a scenario where the experience and understanding of stewards are allowed to prevail, the integrity of the sport will diminish and the opportunity for those groups opposed to racing of any kind will be handed a rod with which to beat the sport.