Simple Verse outbattles Bondi Beach in St Leger, but loses war via DQ in stewards' room
Simple Verse crosses the wire a head in front. Photo courtesy of British Champions Series via Twitter.
Just as you never want the referees to be the decisive factors in the outcome of a game, you never want to see a race come down to a difficult judgment call by the stewards. This desire for clarity, and for the satisfying result of having the best horse on merit win, is all the more intense at the highest levels of our sport -- when history itself, and not only money and breeding value, are on the line.
That's what makes Saturday's St Leger (G1) such a gut-wrencher. The filly Simple Verse was strung up in a pocket behind Storm the Stars, and hemmed in by Bondi Beach, who leaned in toward her. Simple Verse was undeterred, uncowed, refusing to be intimidated. Muscling her way out through brute force, she bumped Bondi Beach, made her own path, and overtook Storm the Stars.
As Storm the Stars' stamina gave out in the final stages of the 1 3/4-mile, 132-yard classic, Simple Verse and Bondi Beach continued to duke it out to the line. There's no denying that the filly threw another good punch at the colt, dug in as though relishing the brawl, and fiercely kept her head in front at the line.
Ever so briefly, Simple Verse was hailed as the first filly to defeat the colts in the St Leger since User Friendly in 1992. Trainer Ralph Beckett, and Sheikh Fahad's Qatar Racing, could celebrate that the £50,000 supplemental fee was well spent. And far off in South Africa, sire Duke of Marmalade may have gotten word that he was responsible for a fourth classic winner this season -- and the highest profile one at that.
But you knew, like a death knell, that the stewards' bell would ring. And so it did.
Thanks to the televised inquiry, you could see Bondi Beach's jockey, Colm O'Donoghue, display his considerable forensic skills as he pointed out the precise points of interference. He knew the rules, he knew his solid grounds for a disqualification, and he succinctly stated his case like a barrister before the judge. No need to gild the lily, or overload with extraneous posturing. Just coolly stick to the facts, and the damning video evidence will speak for itself.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, you could almost feel the unease, worry, even angst on the part of Simple Verse's rider, Andrea Atzeni, whose principal line of defense was that Bondi Beach had started the whole chain of events by leaning in on the filly. There wasn't -- there couldn't have been -- much of a rebuttal to the charge that she came out and bumped Bondi Beach, not once, but twice.
So after the inquest, it was no surprise that the stewards ruled to reverse the standings. Bondi Beach was awarded the victory he couldn't gain on the course, and Simple Verse's sheer will power was set aside, all for naught.
Thus trainer Aidan O'Brien won his fifth St Leger, this one in unsatisfying circumstances. That's no disparagement of Bondi Beach, who shapes up as a top-notch staying prospect for next year's Cup races. Bred on the potent cross of Galileo over Danehill, he didn't even begin his career until May 10, and has gone from unraced to classic winner in the span of four months. Moreover, Bondi Beach has never finished worse than second, all in tight finishes, including the August 19 Great Voltigeur (G2) at York, when he was involved in another tense inquiry. On that occasion, he was herded across the course by the victorious Storm the Stars, who controversially kept the race. Watsdachances that the same horse can be interfered with twice in high-profile races in Yorkshire?
That last was an awful pun, since it alludes to the Beverly D. (G1) disqualification of Secret Gesture -- who is also trained by Beckett for Qatar Racing, the same connections as Simple Verse. So this was their second tough DQ in a month.
The heartbreaking thing about the St Leger disqualification is that I don't think Bondi Beach was ever going to outfinish Simple Verse. To my very subjective eyes, the filly was giving off the vibe of a thoroughgoing bruiser who simply wanted it more and was relentlessly determined to prevail in this head-to head match. Bondi Beach was definitely the victim of her aggression, but shaped as a still relatively inexperienced type who might not have been able to win a no-holds-barred test of wills at this point in his career.
Of course, that opinion is far too subjective to hold any weight in the stewards' room. For that reason, I understand why the stewards ruled as they did. It would have been difficult to argue why the result should stand, given the undeniable incidents in the stretch and the slender margin.
Beckett and Atzeni were understandably gutted, with the trainer vowing to lodge an appeal and lamenting the inconsistencies of the stewards in applying the rules. While that's a very fair point, it actually underscores the need for upholding the rules of racing, and limiting the scope of subjective determinations as much as possible.
Here's the replay:
Jockey Colm O'Donoghue, Bondi Beach:
The stewards said to me I had been involved in two incidents, they pointed that out themselves. First, Andrea (Atzeni on Simple Verse) has come off his inside line when he was following Pat Cosgrave (on Storm the Stars) and he has knocked me three or four wide. You see my horse change his legs. I've then because of that gone a half length down on Andrea. I still have time to get back to Andrea and I get to within a head, but again, he has hit me inside the half-furlong marker. These are 500kg animals and staying horses so they can hardly turn it on and turn it off. When your momentum is knocked is off it takes time to build that back up again. Look, it is racing. The rules state: did you get taken off your line? Yes. Did it cost you the race? Yes - it cost me my momentum!
As I said these are 500kg animals. When my horse has received a bump, he is at full stretch and we as jockeys are balancing them, we are carrying them and I have try and build my horse up again. I have received interference twice, with my horse receiving the most interference of all.
He is a big rangy colt. He only does the bare minimum but I have tried two times to get him to the front and two times he was only doing the bare amount. He should have won at York (in the Great Voltigeur), and again in this race, he changed his legs, lost his balance and again he has come back. I would have preferred it if the pace was a bit stronger but that is the way it goes. He is a lovely big colt and that is only the fifth start of his life - he can only improve.
I got banged, and I got back into it. Then I got banged again, and I tried to get back into it. I was run off my line, and the rulebook says that mustn't happen.
The rule book says: "has interference occurred?" - yes, "were you interfered with" - yes, "did you get taken off your line" - yes, "did you have time to come back again?" - yes, but again I have got impeded, so my momentum has stopped again.
I tried to have a fair shot at it. The pace of the race was quite slow for everything. That probably allowed the filly to get into it a lot more - she has a weight allowance - but I tried to have a go and got impeded. I have won but the rules have made the decision today.
Jockey Andrea Atzeni, Simple Verse:
Deep down, I feel low - I felt like going home. That's racing. I was crying in the stalls (before riding the winner of the next race) but, at the end of the day, it's my job and that's what I get paid for. It's done, it's over and I am gutted really because I feel like the best horse won the race.
It's a shame for the boss because he deserved a big winner and it's a shame for the whole team.
Trainer Ralph Beckett, Simple Verse:
I'm astonished if anything as there is no consistency in the rule.
We saw only a week ago, one of Stuart Williams' horses, Suzi's Connoisseur I think it was, on the straight course at Ascot got pinned against the rail and Joe Fanning (jockey) had to stand up in his irons and was only beaten half a length. The jockey on the winning horse had come all away across the track, with his stick in the wrong hand, and pinned him against the rail.
That horse didn't get the race. We lose the race when clearly, what ever way you look at it, both horses leaned on each other. Can you honestly say that it was entirely her fault? Could you put your hand on your heart and say it was her fault in the last half furlong?
I don't think I can answer that question - can anybody else? One thing is for certain - we will appeal this. That's all I've got to say on the matter.
Paul Barton, the British Horseracing Authority's Head of Stewarding and stipendary steward at Doncaster Saturday:
We first had to decide whether there was interference, which there was.
There were two instances of interference, one inside the two furlong pole and one inside the half furlong and we looked at each incident separately. We took the jockeys' evidence and then, having concluded that both instances of interference came from Simple Verse, the stewards then had to decide whether that interference improved her placing over Bondi Beach.
The view that we took was, while the first piece of interference may not have cost Bondi Beach the race, the second incident then occurred and the combination of the two, in our opinion, improved Simple Verse's position. These are always hard decisions. We try and take a dispassionate view. We make our decisions on sound principles. Whether it is unanimous or not, we don't share that information but, in the room, the decision that the stewards have to take is that they are satisfied. They don't have to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt but they have to be comfortable that the decision taken is the correct one.
We have an independent appeals procedure and it's pretty much guaranteed that we will be expecting an appeal from the connections of Simple Verse. We, at the racecourse, have to make sure that we have followed all procedures correctly, we've interpreted the rule correctly and that we're confident we have reached the correct decision on the day.
Every single incident is different and we try and weigh up the evidence on the day. When we go back and look at previous incidents in our monitoring process on our training days, we look to make sure that we are reaching our decisions consistently. I think people understand our rules and how those rules work. When you have to make a difficult decision, someone has to make it and I think people have to understand it.
You can't look at one incident and measure it against another. I can understand people's criticisms as when we don't change results, people criticise us and when we do, people also criticise us. Precedent, to a degree, will tailor how you look at other incidents but they are all different. Every incident I look at, I measure it against the guidelines that we have to ensure that we are making these decisions consistently and I believe we are.