Tom Kerr: Botched Best case will leave lasting damage
Jim Best: suspended for six months for instructing John to stop horses
PICTURE: Dan Abraham Botched Best case will leave lasting damage By Tom Kerr 11:40AM 16 DEC 2016
Racing Writer of The Year Tom Kerr highlights a key aspect of the Jim Best saga that has worrying implications for the future
THIS can't go on, can it? Every time you think you have seen the final pratfall, the last rake in the face, the curtain closing on this Three Stooges homage, up pops yet another slapstick gag to groan at.
Far from being resolved by this week's verdict, the endless debacle that is the Jim Best case lurched further into farce and unleashed a whole new round of recriminations, dissatisfaction and outrage. Well, of course it did. What else was going to happen?
Let's start with the week's biggest news: the six-month suspension Best received for ordering conditional jockey Paul John to stop two horses and which, in a rare accomplishment, it seems everyone is unhappy with.
As has been widely noted, a six-month suspension for compelling a young jockey to throw two races seems an awfully forgiving form of justice. So much so, in fact, that even the disciplinary panel in the Best case was moved to take what I believe is the unprecedented step of appearing to distance itself from its own punishment.
In sentencing reasons the panel went to some effort to say, ‘look, this six-month thing, it's really not our fault', first criticising the BHA's vague penalty guidelines and then adding the following:
"As a comment, we suggest that if the BHA regards suspension or disqualification for a longer period as appropriate for such a case as the present, then it would be wise were the guidelines to reflect that policy directly and with clarity. Speaking for ourselves, we can see that might better reflect the gravity of the kind of misconduct we find here."
So, not just not our fault, but the fault of the BHA.
As for the BHA itself, the regulator has made no comment on the verdict, but has been notably keen to emphasise that the disciplinary panel is an independent body, a point missed in some criticism of the sentence.
Who takes the blame?
It is unlikely the BHA has simply developed a sudden enthusiasm for advertising the sport's proper division between executive and judiciary, just a proud regulatory mother showing off her handsome jurisprudence. Anyone sensible, anyone considering this question on, say, the balance of probabilities, would concede the BHA highlighting the panel's independence has a lot to do with the outcry over the sentence. Why take the flak for a punishment you didn't even hand out?
All this means we are left with a situation where both the judges and the prosecutors in the Best case are not just distancing themselves from the sentence, they are obliquely blaming each other for it. It's a sentence unanimously denounced and disowned. How ridiculous is that?
Even the relatively straightforward solution to this problem is tinged with the absurd. Next year the BHA will commission a full rewrite of the rules of racing and would be well advised to heed the advice of the Best panel to ensure the new rule book contains tough, clear penalties for cheating. Ironically, though, the man the BHA originally had in mind to conduct the rules rewrite was none other than former disciplinary panel chairman Matthew Lohn, whose inappropriate employment by the regulator kicked off this whole affair.
If the sentence was bad, worse was to come on Wednesday when we learned that Best's wife Suzie had applied for a trainer's licence to take over the yard. If Mrs Best is granted a licence it would threaten to make a mockery of the already lenient sentence imposed on her husband this week. As Best is simply suspended, not disqualified, there are no restrictions on his involvement in racing beyond not being able to train – he could stand by Mrs Best's side every moment of every day of his ban. It's hard to know whether to be outraged or amused by the prospect. Maybe both.
Treatment of Paul John
But while some of this affair is so thoroughly soaked in farce it's almost funny, there are other elements of the story that are not amusing in the slightest, and in closing I'd like to highlight one consequence of the case that will echo for years and is nothing to chuckle over.
Paul John is not the first jockey to cheat and will not be the last, but he might be the only one who has ever voluntarily turned whistleblower on his former employer. Will there ever be another after how this was handled?
Any rider watching this case will have been appalled at the manner in which John's career and reputation was torn to shreds, with the BHA often doing its best to make things worse.
First, the regulator's mistakes led to the case having to be reheard, meaning it dragged on for almost an entire year. Second, the BHA's legal representatives made little attempt to rebut the sustained and effective attacks on John's credibility, and given how central that was to the case, never mind John's future career, it was surprising greater importance was not attached to it.
The final straw, though, came this week when the panel passed a sentence on Best that was just a few weeks longer than the 150-day punishment levied on John. Was that fair? John may have cheated but he did so under coercion, as a rider in the last chance saloon being effectively ordered to do what he's told or sling his hook. And he, unlike Best, admitted his offence.
So this is the message jockeys paying close attention will have heard: turn whistleblower and your career will wither, your character will be torn to shreds, and even if your accusations are proven the person who initiated, and then denied, the corruption will be punished almost no more severely than you. It's not the strongest message, to say the least.
And that's the really poisonous thing about this affair. Even after we finally see the last fall gag and the last custard pie is thrown, the bruises we can't see will go on hurting for years to come.
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