Bryony Frost-Robbie Dunne case finally set to be heard

All those involved will be feeling the pressure on Tuesday as a disciplinary hearing finally gets under way to determine whether Robbie Dunne is guilty of bullying Bryony Frost, which he denies. Along the way, we hope to learn whether the weighing room is indeed the supportive environment that several high-profile riders have described, or whether there is a different reality for some.

In racing's quiet little world, no BHA hearing has been so widely anticipated or generated such a quantity of advance coverage and comment – and this despite the central figure having herself remained silent since January, when she said "it concerns something that must be improved for our younger generation" in the middle of a Racing Post interview.

Frost's comments at that time, coming so soon after her King George success aboard Frodon, attracted a lot of attention, with various attempts made at teasing out details of what she meant. Within days, Dunne was named as a jockey whose relationship with Frost was fractious at best. His was not the only name reckoned to be in the frame in those early days but he is the only one known to have been charged with a breach of the BHA's rules.

When a charge sheet was finally issued last week, some of the parameters of the case were confirmed, the behaviour at its core having apparently taken place between February 13 and September 3 last year. It is surely significant that Frost won aboard This Breac at Leicester on the first of those dates, her mount having been shoulder to shoulder with the Dunne-ridden Lickpenny Larry just after the final fence. 

The charges mention three specific incidents of alleged abusive and threatening behaviour, at Stratford on July 8, at Uttoxeter on August 17 and at Southwell on September 3, all in 2020. Dunne denies each charge. At worst, the 36-year-old faces a ban from the sport running into several years if found in breach.

Interest in the case flared up once more in the middle of last month when an investigatory report, prepared for the BHA's integrity team by its head, Chris Watts, found its way into the hands of David Walsh at the Sunday Times and some of it was quoted in his articles over consecutive Sundays. Dunne's solicitor responded with a mixture of anger and despair, complaining of damage to his client's reputation and prejudice to the disciplinary process.

After the second of Walsh's reports, there was an unexpected intervention from the Professional Jockeys Association, asserting that a fair hearing had become impossible because of the leak and calling on the BHA to "bring this matter to an end, however unsatisfactory that is".

To the surprise of some, the BHA did not offer a public response, although it quite obviously continued to pursue the case, possibly taking the view that the less said about it the better. Some, even among the BHA's supporters, would have preferred a robust assertion that the process was sound, despite the leak.

The source of that leak remains unclear. Another complicating factor is that Watts left the BHA in the summer for reasons that have never been explained. It is still not known whether he will be available as a witness at this week's hearing to discuss the findings of his investigation or to be cross-examined over it.

It remains possible that this hearing will begin with a vigorous debate between lawyers as to whether the leak has fatally compromised the process. However, it seems unthinkable the panel would decide they are too prejudiced to hear the case. Instead, the likelihood is that the case will involve six days of evidence, spread over this week and next.

Brian Barker QC, who chairs racing's independent judicial panel of 15 members, will himself chair the three-person panel that sits in judgement this week, an acknowledgement of the gravity of the case. Also on the panel will be James O'Mahony, a retired circuit judge, and Alison Royston, whose career has been in football administration.

It will be the first hearing to take place in the BHA's basement since the Covid outbreak, disciplinary matters having been dealt with very effectively online in the subsequent 20 months. Panel members, accused persons and witnesses have all convened via Zoom for recent hearings and there have been no notable hitches, bar an occasional fumbling with the technology. But it has evidently been decided that this case merits a return to the traditional method.

Media representatives tended to crowd around the edges of the hearing room when noteworthy cases were heard in the past but interest in this case has been such that that has not been deemed practical, with Covid a continuing concern. Journalists are to be allowed to observe remotely and must hope the electronics do not fail at a critical juncture.

It does not seem a coincidence that the BHA issued a press release last week, with news of agreed upgrades to the changing facilities available to jockeys at British racecourses, the areas restricted to female jockeys at some tracks having come in for particular criticism. A deadline of February has been made for ensuring that private changing and showering facilities exist at every track for any jockey who wishes to use them, which is being insisted upon as a "key safeguarding measure" and an especially important thing to provide for any riders who are not yet 18.

Who's who at the disciplinary panel hearing?
Brian Barker QC (panel chairman)
Barker, 76, is a retired former senior judge and is serving his second three-year term as chairman of the independent disciplinary panel having held the role since its creation in 2017. During his career Barker served as Recorder of London, the most senior judge at the Old Bailey, as well as sitting as a judge at the Court of Appeal. He was made a CBE in the 2015 New Year's Honours for services to the administration of justice and to charity.

James O'Mahony (panel member)
O'Mahony, 70, retired in April this year after a distinguished career as a circuit judge, with the last 13 years spent on the bench at Canterbury Crown Court. Appointed the Honorary Recorder of Margate in 2002, O'Mahony is known for his love of Shakespeare as well as horseracing.

Alison Royston (panel member)
Royston, 46, has spent much of her career in football administration, reaching the role of head of administration at Leeds United. She also served as a member of the FA's judicial panel. Royston has ridden competitively since childhood and took part in the St Patrick's Derby charity race at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival.

Louis Weston (for the BHA)
No stranger to BHA matters, Weston has specialised in sports law for more than 12 years and has acted and advised a number of governing bodies across the globe. He has dealt with a range of sports ranging from badminton to cricket, and in horseracing he has been a regular participant at a number of BHA hearings, perhaps most notably the high-profile Jim Best non-trier case in 2016.

Daryl Cowan (for Dunne)
An expert in employment law, Cowan worked for Southampton City Council before moving to the National Farmers Union and co-founded his own firm in 2008. It specialises in employment law for employers and employees. In his spare time Cowan enjoys golf and country music and has dabbled in comedy script writing.