Palou vs. Ganassi, Piastri vs. Alpine

Right now, top-flight single-seater racing news in the USA and the rest of the world is being dominated by contractual disputes involving drivers.

In Indycar, Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) is suing one of its drivers, Alex Palou, for breach of contract after they announced on July 12th that he had extended his contract with them to the end of 2023, and Palou responded “No, I never agreed to this”. Palou and his management believe that he has a signed agreement with McLaren, although it is not clear what racing series he will be driving in in 2023, since McLaren co-owns an Indycar team, and owns a Formula 1 team and a Formula E team. Several hours after Ganassi’s announcement, McLaren announced that it had signed Palou for 2023 and beyond. However, the press release carefully avoided mentioning which series Palou would be driving in.

Palou, it must be mentioned, is the current Indycar series champion, having won the title last year driving for Ganassi in his second season in the series. So we have a championship-winning team suing its championship-winning driver. Not a common occurrence.

In Formula 1, following the shock news that Fernando Alonso is leaving Alpine to join Aston Martin for 2023 and beyond (replacing Sebastian Vettel, who is retiring), which was announced on August 1st, Alpine announced that its reserve driver Oscar Piastri, would be racing for Alpine in 2023, replacing Alonso. To which Piastri immediately responded “I have not signed for Alpine, and I will not be driving for them in 2023”.

It is widely believed that Piastri and his management have been in talks with McLaren about Piastri joining the team, presumably replacing Daniel Ricciardo, who is not performing at the same level as Lando Norris.

Both situations are messy. In the case of Palou and Ganassi, CGR has sued Palou in Marion County District Court (the court handing civil matters in the county in Indiana where CGR has its headquarters). Palou’s lawyers have applied to have the case moved to Federal court, which, if granted, may slow down its progress, and more awkwardly, force Ganassi to reveal more details of the contracts that lie behind the lawsuit claims. (Palou’s lawyers have also hinted that Palou may file counter-claims in the case).

The main issue in this lawsuit may be whether Palou’s contract with CGR contains any sort of “out” clause that would allow him to leave to join a Formula 1 team. Some racing contracts in lesser series have an “out” clause allowing a driver to leave if he is offered a drive in Formula 1. This is entirely dependent on the detail wording of the contract, since the contract might have an “out” clause for Formula 1, but it might only apply if Palou is going to be a full-time driver for McLaren. A test driver role, for example, might not qualify to trigger the clause.

In the case of Piastri and Alpine, the main issue, if Piastri has signed an agreement with McLaren, is that Daniel Ricciardo signed a 3 year contract with McLaren for the 2021-2023 seasons. The contract has no get-out clause on the team’s behalf, but it has an option on Ricciardo’s side for the 2023 season. So, if Ricciardo has already exercised the option, which he would be a fool not to do, he is contractually bound to McLaren for 2023, and if McLaren wants another driver to replace him, they will either have to buy out his contract, or sell his contract to another team (which might also require his express consent, depending on how the contract is worded).

The big backdrop to the Piastri-Alpine dispute is that many option contracts and pre-contracts in Formula 1 expire on July 31st. Teams want to have their drivers locked down for the following season as soon as possible, in order for them to do other commercial deals before the next season commences, and drivers whose current teams may be terminating or not extending their contracts also need to know in time what will happen so that they can look for other opportunities.

What is generally believed is that Fernando Alonso was negotiating a new contract with Alpine, but he had not signed it, because he wanted a multi-year deal, while Alpine was only prepared to offer him a 1 year deal. The insistence on a 1 year deal apparently came from Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi. Alonso’s contract had an exclusivity clause that expired on July 31st, after which time he was free to talk to other teams.

Alpine has had Oscar Piastri under contract for some time, and supported him in the lower formulae. Piastri is reckoned by many people in the sport to be a once-in-a-generation top-flight driver, and his performances of winning both an F3 series and an F2 series in his first season in both certainly suggest that he is highly talented. Alpine had Zhou Guan Yu under contract, but lost him to Alfa Romeo at the end of last year, because they could not offer him any Formula 1 seat. They did not want to lose Piastri the same way.

Piastri’s contract with Alpine also is rumored to have had an exclusivity clause that expired on July 31st. Piastri’s manager, Mark Webber, has been in talks with other teams for a while, trying to find a drive for him next year. Basically, it has been clear all along that if Alpine could not find Piastri a drive in F1 next year, he would become a free agent and any team could sign him. Normally a manufacturer team like Alpine would do a loan deal to another team for 1 or 2 seasons. However, many teams are not keen on taking a driver on loan only to have to give him back after he has spent 1 or 2 seasons honing his craft. Piastri was also not keen on a loan deal to a back-of-the-grid team where he might not be able to show his talent to the full.

There is an additional complication that Alpine/Renault does not have any customer teams. In the past, manufacturers would loan a driver to a customer team, often paying his salary and offering the B team a discount on powerplant supply. Alpine does not have that option available.

Up until last week, the most likely outcome was for Alonso to agree to the 1 year offer from Alpine (which was also rumored to include a clause guaranteeing him the lead driver role in the Alpine WEC car project after 2023), with Piastri being loaned to another lower-tier team for 1 season to allow him to gain experience, possibly Williams or Haas. Alonso had no other options with any other team, and his track record of acrimonious splits with teams has left him with the image as a difficult person to deal with.

Then…Sebastian Vettel announced his retirement on 27th July. That changed everything.

Suddenly, a potentially top-flight team with a wealthy, ambitious owner was on the phone to Fernando Alonso, offering everything that Alpine were not offering – a multi-year contract for a start, and a salary that was rumored to be higher than any salary that Alpine was prepared to offer. (Rumor has it that Esteban Ocon’s salary rises next year as part of an escalator clause in his contract, and the salary that Alpine was offering Alonso for 2023 was less than Ocon’s 2023 salary).

Alonso, a man for whom pride and ego plays a big part, suddenly felt wanted and needed in a way that Alpine were not signalling. In his mind, Alpine wanted to underpay him, then rapidly pension him off and send him to sports cars. Aston Martin wanted him to drive in F1 as long as he wanted to. Big difference.

Legally, Alonso could not sign anything until his exclusivity clause with Alpine expired at midnight on July 31st. But within a few hours after that, Aston Martin announced that Alonso had signed a multi-year deal with the team.

However, at exactly the same date and time, Oscar Piastri’s exclusivity contract with Alpine also ended. He was free to negotiate with other teams, and it just so happened that another team (believed to be McLaren) was very interested. Seeing Piastri as a generational talent, they offered him a contract.

Alpine’s announcement that Piastri would be driving for them can be seen as a throw of the dice. The team, caught entirely unawares by Alonso’s decision to sign for Aston Martin, needed a replacement, and what better than the driver that they have been supporting to get into Formula 1?

However, Piastri’s categorical insistence that he will not drive for Alpine in 2023 is a powerful indication that he has already signed to drive for another team. If the Alpine exclusivity clause in the contract had expired, it is possible that Alpine has no legal recourse. In which case they are left with a vacant seat for next season. If Alpine was unable to commit to Piastri, because they still wanted to have Alonso in the team for 2023, they might have been stringing him along to the point where he lost patience and confidence in them, and signed an option deal with McLaren, to be triggered after 31st July.

Now…if that happened, then things get murky if there was an exclusivity clause attached to Piastri’s contract with Alpine. If Alpine could, for example, show that Piastri and/or his management were negotiating with McLaren in advance of 31st July, when the contract forbade it, then they would have a case against McLaren for tortuous interference, as well as Piastri for breach of contract. However, I doubt that is the case. It has been an open secret for months that Piastri’s management have been trying to find him a formula 1 drive for 2023. They probably already banged on every team’s door a long time ago.

At the same time, 3 into 2 will not work at McLaren, at least not next season. With Daniel Ricciardo essentially unsackable, McLaren will either have to buy out Ricciardo’s contract, find him a seat acceptable to him in another series (i.e. Indycar or Formula E), or trade his contract to another team, if they want to slot Piastri into a race seat for 2023.

One big unknown is whether Ricciardo’s contract contains offset language. If (to use an example) he is being paid $10m by McLaren, and McLaren terminate his contract, and there is offset language in the contract, and he signs a contract with another team for $8m, McLaren would only owe him $2m, because the new team would be paying him $8m of the $10m that McLaren would otherwise owe him in 2023 under the terms of the contract. Absent any offset language, Ricciardo could potentially “double dip”. He could collect the money owed for his McLaren contract in 2023, sign with another team AND get paid by them. Assuming he can find another team willing to sign him at this late stage.

Alpine now has a driver vacancy…

The fact that Mclaren is a suitor for the services of both Alex Palou and Oscar Piastri is probably not a coincidence. Zak Brown, the CEO of McLaren Racing, is ambitious to build up all of the three single-seater teams. McLaren formally enters Formula E next season, when it takes over the Mercedes Formula E team, Arrow SPM McLaren is expanding to 3 cars next season, and Colton Herta has tested with McLaren this season in a 2021 car.

UPDATE – This morning’s addition to the rumour mill is that the contract Piastri has signed with McLaren is for a reserve driver role in 2023, with him becoming a race driver in 2024 and beyond, after the expiry of Daniel Ricciardo’s contract. This is logical from a financial point of view, given the costs that McLaren would likely incur if they terminated Ricciardo’s contract a year early, but the rumour makes little sense from an overall strategy perspective. Alpine would have been extremely keen to have Piastri also continue in a reserve role for 1 year while Alonso saw out his contract, so he was not going to be racing for Alpine.

The only part of the rumor that makes sense is that Alpine planned to loan him to Williams for 2023, and Piastri and his manager felt that was not going to be good for him. However, any racing experience is better than watching from the garage. George Russell was loaned from Mercedes to Williams for 2 seasons, rapidly acquired the nickname “Mr. Saturday” because of his consistent ability to extract the maximum from a mediocre car in qualifying, and is clearly ready to race at the sharp end in 2023 for Mercedes. Being loaned to another team certainly did not hinder him.

UPDATE 2 – The case filed by Ganassi against Alex Palou is now headed for Federal court.

UPDATE 3 – A lot of people seem to think that the Alpine mess with Alonso and Piastri is somehow the fault of Otmar Szafnauer. This is unlikely. Fernando Alonso was apparently negotiating his contract directly with Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi, and it is therefore safe to assume that the same was occurring with Oscar Piastri. Szafnauer, like the rest of the Alpine team, found out that Fernando Alonso had signed for Aston Martin when he read that team’s press release on the Monday morning.

There may be issues with Rossi’s leadership style. Since he became Alpine CEO, three senior leaders – Marcin Budkowski, Cyril Abetiboul, and Alain Prost, have left the team. Alpine also lost Zhou Guan Yu to Alfa Romeo last year when they were unable to offer him a race seat. There is an emerging pattern that suggests strongly that Rossi does not really understand or respect top-flight racing team culture.

UPDATE 4 – It now seems that McLaren intends to replace Daniel Ricciardo with Oscar Piastri in 2023, and has already commenced talks with Ricciardo’s management to buy out the remainder of his contract. 

This explanation from Dieter Rencken shows that Piastri probably signed a McLaren contract before Alonso signed for Aston Martin.

UPDATE 5 – Adam Cooper, writing in Motorsport, explains the events that have unfolded. Included in the article is the revelation that a deal had been agreed for Piastri to be loaned to Williams, with a Renault powerplant deal as part of the arrangement. So the signing of Piastri to Mclaren has pissed off not only Alpine, but also Williams. Alpine would have gained a B team, which they currently lack, which would have increased their influence inside the sport. The relationship between Piastri and McLaren had better work, or his management may live to regret the move.

 

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Lester Piggott 1935-2022 – The lesser-known but important stuff

Lester Piggott, possibly the most recognizable British professional athlete of the last 60 years, passed away this past weekend.

As befits a man who operated at the very top of his sport for 40+ years, amassed 11 UK flat jockey championships, and 30 English Classic wins (including a record 9 Epsom Derby wins), the obituaries were fulsome, but nearly every obituary simply documented all of the well-known highlights (with passing references to Piggott’s collision with the UK tax authorities, which saw him serve a year in jail in the late 1980s), and failed to mention some key parts of Lester’s life that are laudable and noteworthy.

One aspect is that virtually all of Piggott’s fame was achieved without much of his own help in public relations terms. More than many other high-performing athletes, his reputation was built almost entirely by his winning record, particularly in Classic races. He looked mega-serious sitting on a horse, with a face which one journalist memorably summarized as “looking like a well-kept grave”. Monosyllabic in public, with a speech impediment and limited hearing in one ear, Piggott was seldom a good interview, but in private he was said to be much different, with a sly, dry wit, and an ability, which he occasionally showed in public, to turn a pithy phrase.

Most of his interviews were notable for his well-developed ability to deflect awkward questions, or swat away questions he perceived as pointless. Occasionally, he could be snarky and cutting. In 1968, he won the Washington International on Sir Ivor, coming from the pack with a late run to win near the line, on a horse that needed to be held up until the last minute to preserve his speed. US journalists, used to the American jockey style of toe-in-irons, a short rein, crouched almost up the horse’s neck (think Bill Shoemaker), did not know what to make of a really tall guy riding very short, his posterior high in the air, riding with a long rein, and Piggott’s style led to some negative media commentary. In 1969 he returned again and won the race on Karabas. Asked afterwards “when did you know you had the race won”, he replied, deadpan, “about 2 weeks ago”.

The most interesting interview I found was this one, which seems to begin unpromisingly with Lester being, well, Lester, giving short, almost monosyllabic answers to the questions. But somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, he warms up, and proceeds to give detailed and interesting responses to questions. It is a fascinating insight into the thought processes of a man who, beneath the unsmiling exterior, was very smart and very cunning.  

Lester was born into UK horse racing, his family’s horse racing roots going back 6 generations. However, he was not born into upper-crust horse racing life. The Piggotts were hard-working horsemen and women, jockeys and trainers. They lived comfortably, but not large.

At the time that Lester Piggott began to ride racehorses for a living, jockeys were regarded as lower-status servants, small men whose job it was to ride the horses, preferably win riding them, and to doff their caps and be suitably grateful for the privilege of riding Their Horses, and the small amounts of money that even successful jockeys earned. Hanging over the life of a jockey was the ever-present threat of the big accident that could end their career, or if they were unlucky, their life.

Lester, as he became more successful in the late 1950s and early 60s, would have noticed the vast income disparity, not only between him and his owners, but also between the amounts of money that he and his fellow jockeys earned, and the rapidly escalating earnings of other professional athletes. The salaries of professional soccer players in England in the 1960s escalated rapidly after the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, before which pro soccer players were also little more than averagely paid indentured servants.

Born into a household that imbued thrift and care with money as a virtue, Lester would also have noticed the very high marginal tax rates on high earners in the UK. A number of leading showbusiness people had quietly become tax exiles in the 1950s and 1960s. Noel Coward, Ian Fleming and Richard Burton all became tax exiles rather than hand over way too much of their earnings to the Inland Revenue. In the 1970s, the trickle of celebrities moving their residence outside of mainland Britain, or taking “tax holidays” to coincide with the arrival of large sums of money would become a flood, and tax avoidance would become a burgeoning industry for lawyers and accountants.

Apart from the danger of injury and worse, Lester also experienced the sheer effort involved in riding out, traveling, studying form, and, in his case, the privations of having to run his body at close to 30 pounds less than its normal weight. “What with all of the riding out and the travel, I put in a lot more hours than the average chap”, he remarked in an early 1970s biography.

Piggott, although operating from his own personal motives, which as Peter O’Sullevan noted in his own autobiography, came from his austere upbringing, and his monastic existence, both of which fostered a “me against the world” gunslinger attitude, decided to change the picture.

By 1966, he had been riding as the stable jockey for Noel Murless for over 10 years. During that time, Piggott had won a number of big races on horses trained by Murless. However, in return for a rather modest retainer, he was obliged to ride whatever horse Murless told him to ride. Murless had a very old-world view of jockeys, basically regarding Piggott as just another employee at his beck and call.

Lester was well aware of the rise of Vincent O’Brien in Ireland, who was starting to train top-flight flat horses, after dominating Irish National Hunt racing for years. Piggott chafed at the refusal of Murless to allow him to ride other horses when the Murless horses were not competitive. O’Brien’s horses were becoming too good for an ambitious rider like Piggott to pass up.

At the end of 1966, Lester threw a bomb into the Murless stable yard, announcing that he would be riding as a freelance in 1967. Murless, mistakenly, initially tried to act as if nothing had happened, but soon found out that Lester meant what he said, as he started riding better horses from other stables in preference to the Murless ones. Murless eventually hired George Moore and then Sandy Barclay to replace Lester, who began riding more and more of Vincent O’Brien’s horses.

With top-flight horses from Vincent O’Brien propelling Lester to Derby wins in 1968 (Sir Ivor) and 1970 (Nijinsky), Piggott’s reputation continued to increase, which not only allowed him to ride more Classic-quality horses, but which also meant he began to earn a lot more money. His work situation was awkward. Unlike film or pop stars, who could relocate to more favorable tax havens, while still being able to spend up to 90 days in the UK, Lester worked in the UK, and could not become a tax exile. So he had to resort to creative ways to be rewarded for his efforts without incurring a large tax bill. He began to start asking for (and receiving) additional rewards for his services, in addition to the modest riding fees, and “presents” for winning big races, but preferably not in cash. Lester was fond of indirect payments, especially if they went to an overseas address. Stallion nominations in winning colts and shares in stallions became two of his currencies.

Lester, whether he realized it or not, was already tip-toeing along the fringes of the law, which would come back to hit him hard many years later.

By the early 1970s, Lester had broken the mould of the jockey as obedient servant to owners and trainers. He won the jockey’s title multiple times while riding as a freelance, and he was able to consistently talk himself onto the best horses. Often a single phone call would see a rider “jocked off” a top-flight horse and replaced by L. Piggott. As Vincent O’Brien himself noted, not having Lester Piggott on your Classic horse was a risk that you dared not take.

Piggott also noticed the rise of the wealthy “super-owners”, often from the Middle East beginning in the late 1970s. With his role as Vincent O’Brien’s first-call jockey about to be taken by Pat Eddery, he returned to Warren Place in Newmarket in the early 1980s, to become stable jockey to Henry Cecil, who had taken over the stables from the retired Noel Murless, and had a powerhouse collection of big-spending owners. Effectively, Piggott was riding as much for the most powerful owners in the Cecil stables as he was for Cecil himself.

Piggott’s tenure as Cecil’s stable jockey would end in strained circumstances after several seasons, partly because of a falling-out with owner Daniel Wildenstein in 1983, but also because of a private letter circulated by Cecil, asking leading owners to make payments to Piggott via overseas bank accounts. The letter was leaked, and it’s last words (“please destroy this letter”) would initiate an Inland Revenue investigation. Despite large cuts in direct taxation rates after 1980, Piggott was still trying to shovel cash into his bank accounts via numerous means, some legal, some dubious, and some (it would eventually be ruled) illegal.

Piggott’s attempt to do financial deals directly with owners (albeit under-the-tax-radar) was signaling the beginning of what would later become a firm trend in flat racing, where some top jockeys would be employed by owners directly, riding that owner’s horses, no matter who trained them and where they were trained. Steve Cauthen, who had moved to the UK to extend his career, and who took over as Henry Cecil’s stable jockey after Piggott left at the end of 1984, enjoyed a  period in the late 1980s as the retained rider for Sheik Mohammed until he retired in 1991. Other jockeys continue to be employed to this day by owners or stud corporations such as Godolphin and Coolmore.

The investigation by the Inland Revenue in the mid-1980s led to Piggott being charged with tax evasion. Ultimately, despite paying back a lot of money to the Inland Revenue, Piggott would be jailed in 1987 for 3 years (he served 1 year and 1 day), mainly because he was found to have lied to Inland Revenue investigators about his secret bank accounts. Not even his own accountants knew about one of the bank accounts, which speaks to Piggott’s fiscal cunning and deviousness.

However, Piggott’s laser focus on being paid well for his efforts would help numerous other top riders, who began to be treated far better and given much more credit, private, public and financial, for their efforts. His high public profile, and his unique style of riding, with his posterior high in the air (he famously quipped “well I’ve got to put it somewhere” when asked why his posterior was so high in the air) also paved the way for some other jockeys to drop their anonymity and become public figures, which led to some of them (like Willie Carson) becoming as well-known both on and off the racetrack.

Amusingly, according to the Inland Revenue, Piggott’s sentence for tax evasion also led to a number of other jockeys confessing to the Inland Revenue about certain, ahem, under-the-counter benefits and payments that they themselves had been receiving. Lester had led the way again. Imitation is one of the more sincere forms of flattery, even when (as in this case) other people imitate the dubious stuff.

An innovation that also originated from Lester was a new style of flat race jockey riding position and crouch. During the mid-1960s, he gradually changed his riding position, from a conventional long-leather position (see the image of him on Carrozza), with a straight horizontal back, which was the norm in the UK and Europe at the time, to riding with very short stirrup leathers, with his knees seemingly tied together over the horse’s withers. The change started around 1964, and by 1967, Lester’s riding style was different to nearly every other jockey riding at the time, especially the Australian riders, who always rode with longer leathers than anybody else in the first place. This article from Horse and Hound shows images of Lester from 1966, where he was still transitioning from his previous riding position, and 1971, by which time the famous riding position was cemented in the public view, with his posterior way higher than his head. It became the subject of much comment, but it certainly seemed to work for him, and it led to a rapid move by other jockeys to ride shorter, such that by the mid-70s, just about every flat jockey was riding short, some as short as Lester.  (Later, in the mid-1980s, the influence of Steve Cauthen in the UK and Cash Asmussen in France would lead to a further evolution in riding position and style, with many European jockeys adopting the toe-in-iron position that most US jockeys use).

Lester also shared a love of fast cars and driving fast with his American counterpart Bill Shoemaker. Numerous fellow jockeys had tales of Piggott regarding a 90+ mph dash to a race meeting as simply a jog-trot. (Harry Carr, a peer of Piggott’s in his early career, bailed out of driving to race meetings in Piggott’s car, noting “good driver though he was, it was impossible to stand the strain”). Unlike Shoemaker however, who ended up crashing a high-performance road vehicle after his retirement, and suffered injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic, Piggott was smart enough and good enough to stay out of crash trouble, although he collected speeding tickets at a considerable rate, with the odd driving ban. Sir Mark Prescott tells a hilarious tale of him and Lester, both late in getting to London Heathrow Airport, racing through the London suburbs to get to the terminal, with Lester winning the race by going the wrong way around a roundabout, and when they arrived in Paris, pretending to be the trainer Jeremy Tree and essentially hijacking his rental car. It is perhaps not much of a surprise, that in the earlier-referenced interview, when asked what he would have liked to have been if he could not have been a jockey, Lester replied “motor racing driver”.

Another aspect of Piggott’s life that did attract elliptical comment was that he was polyamorous. He married Susan Armstrong in 1960, and had two daughters, but later had publicly-known affairs with other women, and in 1993 he fathered a son (Jamie, now a bloodstock agent) with Anna Ludlow. In 1997 he quietly left Susan Armstrong (to whom he still remained married) and set up home in Switzerland with Lady Barbara FitzGerald, who also remained married to her previous husband. He lived in Switzerland with her for the rest of his life. His wife professed to be unfazed by the arrangements, and Lester seemingly cared not a jot about what other people thought.

Of course, not caring what anybody thinks can lead to trouble. When you flip the bird to the tax authorities in your country of residence, that tends to end in problems after a while. But we can certainly say that Lester lived his life on his own terms, and most people would like to look back and say that.

 

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UK to withdraw from trade on Earth, negotiate inter-planetary trade deals

London, UK, 10th January 2022. The UK government announced today that it intends to formally withdraw from the World Trade Organization, and intends to only trade with other planets.

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, said in the statement, “the current rules of the WTO are not fair to the great Planetary power of the United Kingdom, and continue to be an unwarranted infringement on UK sovereignty. We believe that trading with other planets will ultimately prove to be more economically powerful for the UK, and will place us in a leadership role in the Solar System.”

The statement continued to say that the UK government hopes to conclude a deal with Mars sometime in the next 10 years. “We expect to make contact with Martian overlords in the next 10 years, either by radio or by a personal visit. We have reached out to NASA to see if we can use one of their Mars rovers to deliver a message to the Martian government. We are excited by the unparalleled opportunities that this strategy provides. We have vegetation and water, they have lots of iron, judging by the color of the surface of the planet. “

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2020 Epsom Derby shock – Serpentine

The Epsom Derby has a habit of throwing up shock results from time to time.

Epsom racecourse is not a regular oval, flat race track. It is undulating, culminating in the downhill sweep around Tattenham Corner, which is angled and cambered, and which often sees fancied horses changing lead legs, and becoming, gait-wise, crossed up. This robs them of momentum at a critical phase of the race. The final 3 furlongs to the winning post are actually on the side of a hill, which is not shown to any accuracy on TV angles.

Every year, a lone horse and jockey will try to lead from the front from the top of the hill to the winning post. Usually, it is an outsider, a horse whose trainer is confident will stay 1.5 miles, but lacking in speed. And normally, the lone ranger is swallowed up by the pack about 2 furlongs out, as his staying ability is trumped by the acceleration of higher-quality horses off of the final corner.

Once in a while, however, the lone ranger horse does cross the line first. In 1974, Snow Knight, a colt with next to no racing record, and a suspect temperament, was discounted in pre-race analysis, starting as a rank outsider at 50/1. He further dismayed everybody by dumping jockey Brian Taylor within a short period of time of him mounting in the paddock. This was SOP for Snow Knight, who was a fractious animal. Taylor swiftly remounted, none the worse for wear, and Snow Knight went to the start line, albeit still arguing with his handlers as he was led into the stalls.

Taylor slipped the field over half a mile out and went for home, confident that Snow Knight would stay the distance. He had run well in the Lingfield Derby Trial, a race at the same distance on a circuit that resembles Epsom. Everybody sat and watched, expecting Snow Knight to be swallowed up by the field, but around 2 furlongs out, the terrible truth dawned, both among the brains of the pursuing jockeys, and the spectators, that Snow Knight was not coming back to the pack. He accelerated well, and held off the pursuers to win by 2 lengths. He actually pulled away from his closest pursuer in the last furlong. He had speed as well as stamina.

Unlike some Derby fields, this was not a weak race. Snow Knight was not the second coming of Airborne. High-quality horses such as Bustino (who had won the Lingfield Derby Trial) trailed him home in the race. Snow Knight, it turned out, was a far better race horse than anybody expected. His record in the UK was spotty, mainly because after the Derby he was mostly entered in races where he was competing against older horses, but sent to race in the USA at age 4, he did very well indeed, despite still being a pain in the ass temperament-wise. At the end of 1975 he was voted Champion American Turf Horse.

In 1985, Steve Cauthen led for the entire race on Slip Anchor, and, in an enterprising Cauthen way, pushed Slip Anchor further into the lead 5 furlongs out, after noticing that Petoski, who was leading the chasing pack, was starting to tire. Slip Anchor stayed in the lead all the way to the finish line, extending his advantage in the closing 2 furlongs. At the time, Cauthen was convinced that Slip Anchor might just be the best horse he had ever ridden, but unfortunately he had an accident in his stall and was never the same horse on track afterwards.

Yesterday at Epsom, we had a repeat of the 1974 and 1985 races, when Serpentine, an unfancied outsider, was sent into the lead of the race a long way out. None of the other horses followed him, and kept tracking each other and running their own race. They suddenly found themselves with no chance, as Serpentine kept moving at the same speed, and they barely made a dent in his lead. He crossed the line 5+ lengths clear.

It remains to be seen whether Serpentine’s victory was a fluke, made possible by the introversion and collective observational failure of the rest of the jockeys, or whether he genuinely is a top-class racehorse. His breeding suggests that he may be the real deal. We will find out over time.

UPDATE 1 – Steve Cauthen, in an interview, pointed out the similarities between his win on Slip Anchor and the win of Serpentine. As he says, if you have a horse that handles the curves and undulations, and who likes to run freely, it is possible to lead from the front a long way out and challenge the rest of the field to catch you.

UPDATE 2 – At time of writing Serpentine looks like a fluke winner of the Derby, having done little of note since he won the race. He has been sold out of Aidan O’Brien’s yard to an Australian breeder and has a new trainer in Ireland.

UPDATE 3 – In an event that is almost unheard of, Serpentine was moved to Australia, and has been gelded. No Epsom Derby winner in the last 122 years has suffered that fate. The new owners explained it as a “racing decision”. Nevertheless, this outcome is a rare one for an English classic winner.

It may be due to simple over-supply. Serpentine’s sire Galileo, who died at the age of 23 in 2021, was a popular and fertile stallion, siring upwards of 230 Group race winners. (In his early stud career, he was a shuttle stallion, but after a while he stood exclusively in Ireland). There are simply way too many male descendants of Galileo currently at stud for a moderate, possibly fluke Epsom Derby winner to make any impression in the market.  Despite his impeccable breeding, it was likely that Serpentine did not have any commercial value as a stallion, given his undistinguished record before and after his shock win at Epsom. The owners probably concluded that he had more value as a gelded stayer. (Prince of Penzance, a shock winner of the 2015 Melbourne Cup, was an 8 year old gelding at the time).

 

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Bryony Frost Affair Part 3 – the fallout continues

This is Part 3 of a series of postings. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Following the verdict in the Bryony Frost case, some parties issued dumb and ill-advised statements. The PJA’s statements were very ill-advised, since, overcome with indignation, they essentially hung Bryony Frost out to dry, providing her with zero public support.

The PJA’s leader Paul Struthers has now elbowed other PJA spokespeople out of the way, admitted that their actions have destroyed Byrony Frost’s confidence in their capability to support her, and has apologized. He seems to fully understand that the PJA has now dug itself into a large hole over the affair. The PJA still has a horrible public perception issue to address, and many female jockeys have to be wondering whether an organization without a single woman in its leadership team can currently be trusted to properly represent their interests.

At the same time, Helen Sheridan has, unlike many people, fully parsed the submissions of the representatives for Dunne and Frost at the BHA inquiry. As she points out, the statement that the weighing-room culture is “rancid” was not an unconditional allegation made by the BHA. It was a conditional statement by the the BHA’s counsel.

We are also witnessing a classic “whispering campaign” by various people making allegations that Bryony Frost is “arrogant” and has a bad attitude. Funny that. This is exactly what bullies or supremacists always claim when called on the carpet about their bad behavior. Taken one step further, we will start to hear the familiar language of the abuser. (“If she had kept her mouth shut I wouldn’t have had to hit her”).

This affair, like a large bruise, will take a while to heal.

 

 

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Bryony Frost Affair Part 2 – the PJA train-wrecks

Bryony Frost is not a naif from outside of racing who is glad just to be in the weighing-room. She comes from a racing family. Her father Jimmy Frost is a retired National Hunt jockey who won the 1989 Grand National. According to Richard Pitman, who rode against him, Frost was a very good jockey.

Bryony Frost has a media career, due to her personality, which gives her a higher public profile than many jockeys. She has a management and PR company. That was obvious when she issued her public statement after the announcement of the results of the BHA inquiry. The statement thanked the public for their support, drew a line under the incident, and said “I’m moving on”. It was clearly written with help from a PR professional who understands media interaction and how to manage public perception.

The PJA’s reaction was, bluntly, disastrous. Instead of a short statement, where they could have expressed disappointment at the outcome, but reserved their position on appealing Dunne’s inquiry verdict and suspension (which is, in my opinion, excessive), they issued a 2-page rant on headed notepaper, complaining about anything and everything. The statement showed no awareness that a jockey had been found guilty of four (count them, four) different infractions. It read like angry and defensive ranting about perceived injustice, and pretended that the allegations by Bryony Frost had still not been proven.

Then, just to make matters worse, the PJA issued a similar statement purporting to come from female jockeys. It was yet another rant on headed notepaper, written in a similar style to the first press release, but it has one highly damaging credibility defect. There are no names attached to it. We have no way of knowing which female jockeys are supporting the statement, and my cynical side wonders if this statement was created by the PJA without any input from female members. Unless two or more female jockeys are prepared to publicly sign on to this statement, it has no credibility at the present time.

The PJA appears to either have not noticed that they are not dealing with a minor incident involving a run-of-the-mill jobbing jockey, or they decided that they can ignore that fact. They to appear to either have no PR consultants advising them, or they are not listening to any PR input, because if they were, they would never have issued either one of these statements.

Worse still, Jon Holmes, one of the leaders of the PJA, has shown up on television, essentially repeating claims in the statements, which include the horribly damaging characterization that Bryony Frost “felt bullied”. When one of your members has been found guilty of four counts of egregious misbehavior towards a fellow jockey, attempting to re-frame that as “somebody felt bullied” is a PR disaster. It screams “denial”. 

Any reputable PR consultant specializing in disaster management would be jumping up and down right now shouting “NO NO NO!” if shown the PJA document trail. This is a case study in how to not respond to a bad PR event. Seriously. It’s terrible.

Pretending that nothing bad really happened and attempting to pivot to Business As Usual is not going to work. The public is aware of this scandal, and is overwhelmingly supportive of Bryony Frost. The National Hunt racing system, and the UK jockey’s trade association, is being made to look misogynistic, tone-deaf and oblivious.

This has impacts, as I wrote yesterday, far beyond the involved jockeys. It impacts the entire public perception of the sport, and potentially reduces commercial opportunities at all levels.

UPDATEFormer jockey Ruby Walsh has commented on the whole affair. Paraphrasing, he believes that the originating incident escalated and spun out of control because the self-regulation process inside the jockey community did not work. Whilst I believe this to be true, it essentially confirms that the jockey working environment, at least inside the weighing rooms, is dysfunctional. The absence of a clear leader who could have told misbehaving individuals to “knock it off” may have led to escalating issues, but the fundamental problem of toxic behavior remains.

This is an excellent summary of the whole sorry affair from Graham Cunningham.

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The Bryony Frost affair – result and fallout

We are in the middle of a major kerfuffle in UK National Hunt racing.

The jockeys Bryony Frost and Robbie Dunne have been the central participants in a BHA inquiry into allegations by Frost that she was bullied over an extended period of time by Dunne, seemingly in and around jockey’s weighing rooms in the UK.

The BHA has found Dunne guilty of bullying and other unacceptable behavior, and has handed down a punishment of a 15 month suspension, with 3 months suspended, which, if implemented, is highly likely to end Dunne’s career as an English National Hunt jockey.

The affair has led to massive public interest, and impassioned commentary by a number of current and past participants in the sport.

It has also showed up a massive culture and comprehension gap between many jockeys, past and present, and the expectations of the outside world with respect to what constitutes acceptable workplace behavior.

The bottom line is the non-negotiable fact that bullying is not acceptable in any workplace. This should not even be a topic of debate. It is dysfunctional, divisive and destructive.

Not every person in a workplace is popular. History also shows us that new people entering a workplace who are seen by established participants in that workplace as “different”, for any reason, be it sex, religion, ethnicity, origins, you name it, are likely to be resented by existing workplace incumbents. This will be especially true if the new entrants start to be seen as successful, inside and/or outside the workplace.

When the workplace is part of a business where many of the participants do their jobs in public, which is definitely the case for jockeys, the stakes become higher. Behavior inside professional sports becomes potentially public, which increases the impacts of both positive behaviors and negative behaviors.

Any successful modern professional sport derives a significant part of its overall income from commercial relationships and sponsorships by businesses. Big businesses can provide large amounts of money to improve the conditions for all participants in a sport. (To use the old expression, a rising tide lifts all boats). However, big businesses have some non-negotiable principles that they generally stick to when deciding whether to support a sport. Among them are the sport’s reputation for equitable behavior, both internally and externally, and whether it is a credible sport with respect to how it operates. Big businesses like stability and, beyond short-term controversies based on sporting rivalries, they dislike controversy, particularly if it concerns the governance of the sport.

The Bryony Frost affair (if I can call it that) therefore has impacts beyond the two named participants, and even beyond the somewhat private and insular world of jockey changing rooms. If businesses see bad behavior inside the sport being tolerated, they can and will conclude that this is not a sport that they would like to be associated with. That is the main reason that fundamental breaches of the rules inside horse racing usually result in draconian punishments, up to and including life bans. The sport’s credibility cannot be maintained if, for example, cheating is shown to exist.

In fact, Dunne himself was involved in a breach of the rules several years ago, when he ended up being banned for 15 days after a weighing-out mix-up ended in him riding a winner at Chepstow carrying 0.4 pounds less weight than he should have done. Dunne was not to blame for the mix-up, but the assistant trainer for the horse then created the issue by attempting to sneak 0.5 pounds of weight into the weighing-in hidden in Dunne’s riding breeches. 

The dispute between Frost and Dunne seems to have unfolded over an extended period of time, in an environment that is very male-dominated. All of the signs exist that the male participants in the controversy failed to understand that what they might term “locker room talk”, uttered mano a mano, would be interpreted by female participants as both insulting and threatening. The male core of the sport regarded their approach as correct, and expected any new participants to conform to those rules or go elsewhere. When Bryony Frost refused to conform, and made it clear that she regarded the attempts to intimidate her as unacceptable, that male-dominated world operated in an utterly predictable fashion. It closed ranks and attempted to freeze her out by solidarity.

Many past and current participants in and around UK National Hunt racing have, quite simply, failed to understand that once you have people in your organization with different values, you are unlikely to be able to continue with the same values. That’s the fundamental result of increasing diversity, especially in the community of jockeys.

Since the announcement of the BHA verdict, a lot of the attempts to justify the events, unfortunately, read like the efforts of the tone-deaf to defend the indefensible. The BJA issued a lengthy statement complaining about the lack of what they termed “due process”, and an unfair focus on weighing-room culture.

The disciplinary processes in sports do not have to conform to the legal standards of the criminal justice system or the civil justice system. Participants in all sports usually have to sign legally binding agreements to submit to the arbitration and disciplinary processes of the sport. The BHA investigation was not a court of law, so complaints about “due process” are, strictly, a diversion. From what I can discover, however, the proceedings closely resembled those in a civil suit, with both sides being able to present their case and evidence, and cross-examination being allowed.

As the closest that there is to a trade union for jockeys, they presumably felt that they had to defend Dunne, possibly since a lot of jockeys might be thinking “if it can happen to him, it could happen to any of us”. In my opinion, they have a good argument that the punishment here is disproportionate. However, the robust defence of Dunne does rather beg the question: why? He was found guilty not once, but four times. This does not look like a grey-area “he said she said” kind of case. It looks pretty open and shut. The BJA is unlikely to get very far appealing the verdicts. The most they could do is to appeal the punishment, which is draconian. As a general rule, I worry that punishments like this one are formulated to “send a message”, which sounds suitably tough and dynamic in public, but often results in a single guilty person being over-punished, while other guilty parties go unpunished.

The idea of course, is that the hefty punishment for the one unlucky person will scare everybody else into behaving better.  However, in a situation where the behaviors are part of a deep-rooted culture, a single punishment alone is unlikely to promote change.

The statements issued by the BJA and the female jockeys (unnamed, which is always dangerous), are notable for their tone of shrill defensiveness, and general air of “there’s no real problem here, so stop picking on us”. Completely missing from the statements is any unforced admission that a significant problem might exist or might have existed. This is the position of participants who are in denial. The reluctance of the female jockeys to identify themselves speaks volumes about the overall atmosphere in the sport around this issue. They read like low-level hirelings for a Mafia operation attempting to deny that they witnessed anything.

The more astonishingly dangerous aspect of the affair has been the extent to which long-term participants and leaders in the sport have failed to understand the significance of the issues, and are busy attempting to minimize them. AP McCoy, whose voice carries a lot of weight because of his tremendous record in the sport, currently seems to be blocking anybody on social media who argues with him over his views on the affair. This is not the action of a smart person. It’s the action of a defensive and resentful person who fails to understand the wider implications of the internal culture of a sport being seen to be out of alignment with the modern world.

Bryony Frost’s position is now very similar to that of most whistleblowers who go outside of a corporation or organization to publicize dysfunctional, bad or illegal behaviors by that organization. Many people inside racing will probably regard her as a “snitch”, laying bare and publicising things that Should Not Be Public. So we can expect that she will be penalized, probably by variants of The Silent Treatment. She does have options, including relocating to Ireland, which might turn out to be a better medium-term move, since Ireland is still in the EU, so her riding opportunities may be wider. If she does relocate, that would be a pretty damning indictment of both the current culture, and its lack of willingness to adapt.

In summary:  a series of incidents of bullying and other obnoxious dysfunctional behavior occurred within the National Hunt jockey community, in a culture where silent acquiescence is the norm. Failure by a victim of bullying to accept the culture has led to an investigation, and a guilty party has been punished. Previously silent enablers are now lashing out, exhibiting all of the signs of both denial and guilt.

The pathologies and behaviors are obvious and familiar to me.

What is interesting is what happens next. When an organization is informed that accepted practices are no longer acceptable, there can be a variety of responses:

  1. Circling The Wagons – There is no attempt to introduce any change. The organization convinces itself that there is no real problem, and continues as before. Rationalizations like “isolated incident” fill the air.
  2. Lipstick On the Pig – a token attempt is made to introduce change, usually via expensive publicity-driven actions, without addressing or preventing the underlying dysfunctional behaviors. Gullible or credulous observers see the initial effort, and assume that all will be well.
  3. Half Assed – a sincere attempt is made to introduce change, but it suffers from lack of attention, resources, and follow-through, so the effect and impacts are limited. However, there is enough superficial change for the major players to declare victory and move on to other (hopefully less contentious) topics
  4. Proper change – a determined attempt is made to introduce change, resistance is avoided or crushed, and real change occurs.

We will have to see what the BHA ends up doing, apart from punishing Robbie Dunne, in order to change the culture in the medium-term. Cultural change is always hard. My expectations, sadly, are for some combination of (2) and (3) above. I do not think that (1) is a credible position, but (4) may require too much effort and attention.

 

 

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Part of “The Withered Arm” rises from the ashes

On Saturday November 20th, a significant railway system event will occur in North Devon. Passenger train services will resume from Okehampton through Crediton to Exeter. The route from Coleford Junction, West of Crediton, to Okehampton will be re-opened for the first time since 1972.

The line from Coleford Junction to Okehampton was part of the original LSWR railway main line from Exeter to Plymouth, the rival to the GWR line from Exter to Plymouth via Dawlish. The route was opened in 1865, when competition between different railway companies was heating up. The LSWR route ran North-West out of Exeter, through numerous towns to Crediton, and then snaked around the Northern edge of Dartmoor, through Okehampton, then on to Lydford, through Tavistock, Bere Alston and down the valley of the River Plym into Plymouth. It was a steeply graded route, rising to 1000 feet above sea level at the highest point West of Okehampton.

The route’s main engineering feature was Meldon Viaduct, constructed to carry the line over the West Oakment valley West of Meldon. Meldon Viaduct is a wrought iron pier viaduct, an impressive structure, which is in reality two sets of viaduct structure bound together. The line, like so many routes in the 1860s, was originally single track, and when it became clear that it needed to be double track, the LSWR simply erected a second set of piers in the valley next to the original single-track viaduct, and created a second track platform at the top, tying everything together with string, tape, baling wire and Mrs Smith’s underwear.

The entire route from Crediton through to Okehampton became part of the Western Region in the post-war British Railways region re-shuffle. It also was one of the many hundreds of lines that appeared in the infamous Beeching Report as being uneconomic. The Western Region already had one main line to Plymouth. Why have two?

At around this time, the entire former LSWR rail line network West of Exeter was dubbed “The Withered Arm” by…nobody knows who, and the name stuck. The Western Region stopped investing in the former LSWR lines, since most of them were uneconomic, and axed all through services, including the famous Atlantic Coast Express, a unique train that ran from Waterloo, with coaches for the many Cornwall and Devon coastal towns originally served by the Southern Railway.

The Beeching Report listed nearly all of those lines and station for closure. Crediton through Okehampton to Plymouth was in the list, partly because local traffic was sparse, and partly because if it was no longer a through route, there was no compelling rationale for it to exist except as a diversionary line for the ex-GWR main line via Dawlish.

A complicating factor was the condition of Meldon Viaduct, which had not been constructed well, and used old-generation materials. The Heath Robinson nature of the viaduct caused problems, as locomotives became heavier. The viaduct was strengthened in the 1940s, but the lack of engineer confidence in the viaduct led to a speed restriction being imposed on all traffic. By the Summer of 1966, the line over the viaduct was singled to reduce the load. At the same time, since the line was slated for closure in the Beeching report, all through services were withdrawn, and single-car diesel multiple units served the stations, many of which were located miles from the communities they purported to serve because the original line engineers had tried to save money by straight-lining sections of the line.

One factor in the line’s favour was the existence of Meldon Quarry, started in the 1930s as a source of railway ballast for the Southern Railway. The quarry was built before the Dartmoor National Park was created, which meant that its extraction license was grandfathered to the present day. The current owners can still extract rock from the quarry in perpetuity. The stone traffic from Meldon required several trains a day.

The axe fell on the section between Okehampton and Bere Alston via Tavistock in May 1968. The entire section was closed, and grass grew on the tracks and weeds filled the platform crevices. Towards the end of 1969, the demolition crews moved in and dismantled the line. Stations were sold off into private ownership or demolished. Meldon Viaduct became a headshunt for Meldon Quarry, and the line from Meldon down to Crediton was singled. A 2-hour service with bad time-keeping, plus several stone trains a day, was not going to justify double track.

After much to-and-fro, the passenger services from Okehampton to Crediton ceased in January 1972. Stone trains continued to use the line, sometimes 4 trains a day would rattle down from Meldon, through the closed Okehampton station and down the gradient to Crediton.

I travelled the line in 1978 as part of an Atlantic Coast Express special train. At the time it was a well-maintained route, still with a 60mph speed limit, and Okehampton Station was still in good repair.

For several decades, the line saw regular stone trains. So much so, that British Railways eventually sold the entire line from just past Coleford Junction to Aggregate Industries, the owner of Meldon Quarry. In turn, Aggregate Industries allowed the Dartmoor Railway, a preserved railway group, to use the line alongside the stone trains, and they restored Okehampton Station and ran tourist trains using a variety of motive power. SouthWest Trains also began to run occasional weekend trains on the line from Okehampton to Exeter. However, the trains were not popular since the deterioration of the line meant that speeds were too low for the journey times to be competitive. The line had needed investment in the years before it closed to passengers, but no money was spent, and there had been no investment in new track or infrastructure since closure.

Meldon Quarry closed in 2011, as cheaper sources of stone were found in Eastern Europe, and the line was silent except for Dartmoor Railway activity at weekends. The Dartmoor Railway services only ran from Okehamption to Meldon, since the stations East of Okehampton were all in private ownership, and the rights to use the line stopped short of Coleford Junction, beyond which the line was owned by Network Rail, who were not interested in allowing interlopers to use the section into Crediton.

After the closure of Meldon Quarry, Aggregate Industries sold the line to a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific. That sale made no sense, and Iowa Pacific later lurched into bankruptcy. The line was no longer being maintained by professionals, the Dartmoor Railway volunteers doing essential maintenance to keep it open.

However, 2 years ago a lot changed, with the creation of the Beeching Reversal Fund, an implicit admission that many of the 1960s line closures under the Beeching Report had not been at all smart. The impetus came from the massive success of the re-opened Borders Railway, using part of the old Waverley Route. The re-opened line exceeded all traffic forecasts.

One of the lines listed at or near the top of the list of lines to be re-opened was…Crediton to Okehampton. The plan was to reinstate services to Exeter. Network Rail spent 2019 and 2020 surveying the line, and estimated it would cost 45 million pounds to reinstate passenger services. Government approval was given, and in December 2020, work kicked off with large amounts of new track being brought up the hill from Exeter and deposited in Okehampton Station yard. No new track had been laid on the line since the early 1960s, apart from a section that had been replaced after a stone train derailment in the 1980s.

Network Rail bought the line back from its current owners (the receivers of Iowa Pacific) to take legal charge of the line for the first time in 20 years. A large percentage of track has been replaced with CWR (some of the track was 100 years old), bridges and other structures have been repaired or overhauled, drainage replaced, and a lot of other detail work performed. Okehampton station will be an unstaffed self-serve station initially.

There is a plan to build a new station East of Okehampton named Okehampton Parkway. The current station is not ideally placed, high on the hill overlooking the town on the South side, and more recent housing developments are to the East.

The closed section of line from Bere Alston to Tavistock has also been under review for reinstatement, the main issue there being that the site of Tavistock station is now a local government building. That project has been under discussion for years, but nothing has happened yet, mainly because until the Beeching Reversal Fund was created, everybody agreed that it was an excellent idea, but nobody really wanted to pay for it.

The key question to be answered is whether the reinstated Okehampton service will be popular enough to persuade the railway companies to invest more money in improving the line further, or even reinstating the section from Okehampton through to Bere Alston. The entire line from Crediton to Plymouth is in the Beeching Reversal Fund shortlist. There has been a lot of genuine interest in re-instating the entire Northern Route via Okehampton to Plymouth, mainly because the Southern route via Dawlish runs next to the sea for 4 miles in the Dawlish area, and that section of the line is vulnerable to storm damage. A section was washed away in 2014, and it took several months for repairs to complete. The big issue is Meldon Viaduct, which is now a Listed Building and is a cycle path. The viaduct is unlikely to be re-instated for train use, so a new bridge will have to be constructed across the West Oakment valley, and that carries a large price tag.

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R.I.P. Terry Moran

My brother-in-law Terry Moran passed away peacefully in the UK this morning after a short illness.

He and my sister met via a widowed persons forum on social media after they were both widowed many years ago in unfortunate circumstances, and they had been happy married for 10+ years. Terry was retired, my sister also retired from the restaurant business, and they played the doting grandparents role, and traveled a lot, mostly to the Greek Islands.

Terry was an interesting character. He was very much an Englander at heart, not much of a fan of politics or governments in general, which left him and me at opposite ends of the opinion spectrum quite often. He also had a deep hatred of all things Microsoft from his time in I.T., which meant that he was a Unix and Linux geek (nothing wrong with that, we need OS diversity now and in the future), and he was a fierce personal privacy advocate, which led to he and my sister using Signal for messaging. He had a typical dry, wry British sense of humour, heavily based on irony, mixed with sarcasm. He and I looked like physical opposites, he was tall and gangly, with the figure of a marathon runner crossed with a pro cyclist, I looked like Michelin Man by comparison. I could do with being a lot more like he was physically, I have to admit.

Sadly, Terry’s time came to an end quite rapidly, but he did not suffer. My heart goes out to my sister, who has to cope with widowhood for the second time in 14 years, and to his family.

2021 is not getting any better.

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A letter from a School District superintendent

Dear Parents,

As you reach the exciting day when your child starts to attend one of our schools, I would like to explain the philosophy that our school district adopts when dealing with you.

As local taxpayers, all paying your share of school taxes, you deserve to know about our philosophy when it comes to education. You deserve to know it because you need to feel confident that your child will end his or her time at one of our schools in a place where they are sufficiently educated to move on to their next phase in life.

You also deserve to know because you may determine, after hearing about our philosophy, that you do not want your child to be educated in one of our schools. In this fine country of ours, you do have other options. You can use private tutors, or you can homeschool your children. That is your right and choice.

Let’s talk fundamentals.

  • You are not our customers

Yeah. The big one.

No, you are not our customers. You provide funding for the district by paying school taxes (although I should point out that single people and people without children also pay school taxes, so don’t forget about them, they also have skin in the game), but we are not educating YOU. We are educating your children. If we do a bad job of educating your children, and (for example) they go to college and flunk out, because they were poorly or incompletely educated by us, and were unprepared for that next step in life, that is on us. We directly failed them, not you.

This means that we are not going to always take direction from parents. We will consult with people who are, surprise, surprise, experts on child education. We may also consult with the children themselves. No, that is not the same as letting the children run the show. Remember how annoyed you get when you’re not consulted about something by your family or partner before they may a decision or do something? How that feels? Think about that and apply it to the children. They may be small, but inside that sometimes-confused head of theirs is the brain of an apprentice adult, which often thinks and feels the same way.

  • Education is not just about teaching, and does not include obedience training 

Many of you seem to think that our primary  job (in some worldviews, our only job) is to ensure that your child passes all of the right exams, ticks all of the right boxes, and sails through essential education and on into life.

The truth, as many of you well know, especially those of you who did not pass a lot of exams, is that passing exams, to a fair extent, is a skill, just like learning to ride a bicycle or learning to read music. Some people just happen to be good at passing exams. (In my youth, jealous or resentful people who were not good at passing exams used to call those people “swots”). Some people are just not good at passing exams.

There is a more interesting truth hiding behind the obsession with exam performance, namely that all that matters is the information that we cram into your child’s head over a limited period of time.

We have a much more expansive view of the word “education”. It is not about your child being able to remember most of the 10,000 things that Miss Smith taught you in History. Sure, remembering stuff is important. But one day, your child will no longer be in school, and they will then need new skills. As in, teaching themselves new skills and self-learning, especially when those skills apply to the whole of their lives, and not a narrow area that fits into a box or zone covered by education systems.

Education, for us, is about giving a child the tools and processes so that they can teach themselves as they move through life. Many successful people have little in the way of a formal education, and they are largely self-taught.

We also regard an integral part of education tools as including skills such as logical analysis and critical thinking. As you know, the world out there is full of what might politely be called Bullshit. Separating useful information from bullshit is a task that we all have to perform on a daily basis. Giving your child the tools to perform that fundamental task is, we believe, rather important, which is why you will find it on our curriculum as its own learning stream.

One item you will not find on our learning stream is Obedience Training. We are not in the business of forcing children to behave like well-behaved domestic pets or chattels, obeying any order, no matter how asinine. As you will no doubt know, many bad events in human history occurred when large groups of people did Bad Things collectively, because they had been told to do those Bad Things, and they automatically obeyed. We intend to reinforce respect, politeness, and honest inquiry. We are not in the business of mandating unquestioning obedience. We use various words and phrases to describe those kinds of societies. The most commonly used word is totalitarian, and it is not intended as praise or as a compliment.

Your child is not simply going to be shuttling between classes, forever learning Stuff. The school is also a social system, and your child will be learning social skills, many of which we do not explicitly teach, although we can provide help and guidance. Those social skills also include fundamentals like how to not be an ass.

  • It is not our job to create a clone of you and your worldview

Your children are likely to be heavily influenced by you, because they will grow up in your household, and will spend more time with you than they do with us. For that reason, we do not consider our task as being one of ensuring that your child ends up as a clone of you. Education is not an a la carte menu where you get to choose which worldviews your child is to be exposed to, and which attitudes you wish your child to be taught.

Respectfully, if your desire is that your child exactly matches your personal worldview, preferences and behavior, then I would suggest that you consider home schooling.

  • We will not prioritize your parental rights over the needs and requirements of the education process

While we value input and feedback from parents, we do not structure our curriculum around their needs, collective or individual. There is a state curriculum that we have to adopt or adapt, and that is legally required. As I said earlier, you cannot choose your child’s education from some a la carte menu where you get to discard all the bits you don’t like or which you consider to be irrelevant. Some of what we teach is non-negotiable. Some of it is a matter of customer choice (i.e. the child).

if you consider the curriculum to not meet your needs, then I would again, respectfully urge you to consider home-schooling.

  • We will not tolerate anti-social behavior or bullying

Lots of school districts say this. They (and we) have to, because our lawyers demand it. Then we usually get down to the business of ignoring bullying, because it’s a rite of passage, right? Stand up for yourself etc. etc. Plus, it is messy. Too much he said she said, “he made me do it”, and all of those other bullshit excuses or evasions that children learn from their parents or from other children.

We actually have a different practical approach. We simply do not tolerate it. If a child is found to be bullying, we will apply any necessary and appropriate sanction, up to and including expulsion, and, if necessary, activating law enforcement. If your child is behaving like a jerk or an ass, they will be held accountable. That’s part of the learning process, otherwise known as actions have consequences.

  • We will not change policy or strategy based on public meetings

Having seen the horrible results when school districts try to implement policy changes or make personnel decisions based on the excited or angry rantings of a small number of parents in a public forum, I am informing you that we do not intend to practice decision that way.

The members of the Education Committee and the School Board are elected by the electors (who, I would remind you, do include taxpayers who may not be parents at this point in time) to represent the electorate in school district policies, strategies and decisions. This is not a direct democracy. The school board meetings are not a policy-making or policy-changing forum.

We will not be taking input on school board decisions and actions from people who do not live in this district. They may have interesting views, but if they are education professionals, there are other avenues for them to express those views. If they happen to be citizens, they should be paying attention to what is going on on their own school district, not ours.

We will treat attendees and speakers at meetings fairly and in an adult manner. That will involve terminating their involvement in the meetings if they cannot or will not behave like sensible adults. You wouldn’t tolerate an asshat crashing your meeting or gathering and disrupting it. We are not going to tolerate it either.

We owe it to you to treat your children as well as possible as they move through childhood and adolescents. We also require you to move beyond the limiting idea of you as customers, and us as providers, towards an enlightened partnership to provide an environment where your children can learn to be themselves in a socially advantageous way for them and those around them, while acquiring both the knowledge and the tools to allow them to make their own way in life. At some point, they will leave your home, and our oversight, and they have to be as ready as we can make them for that time in their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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