After a week of some of the very best NH racing in many years at Cheltenham, particularly in my view on the Thursday, it is sad to see that the over-riding echo at the end of it all is horse welfare.
The deaths of three horses at the festival is without doubt very distressing, made all the more poignant by the obvious sadness and emotion displayed by the trainers, owners and stable staff. For all of those claiming a deep rooted welfare issue in the sport, the reaction of those closest to these horses must surely refute those unfounded and untrue charges.
Sadly, however, racing is an easy target. As Nick Rust from the BHA said only today on TV, we cannot have a 100% fatality free sport. The only way to ensure that is to stop racing altogether – an aim for many anti-racing organisations, with publicly recognised
animal welfare organisations amongst them. It is easy to say that the fatality rate in horses is low (0.022% from recent figures), and that it is falling further, but the fact is that when a horse dies in a televised race, watched by millions, it will have a negative effect on racing. We cannot as an industry bury our heads in the sand on that, or claim that those who protest loudly know nothing about racing. After all, it is exactly those people new to racing who we must be attracting in order to maintain and grow the sport.
I have read some very disparaging comments about the BHA and Mr. Rust specifically today. The fact is, he is right. We cannot pretend that we have welfare at the heart of all we do and leave it at that. We must educate, we must engage and we must be seen to be doing something – most particularly for those with the loudest anti-racing voices. In short we must “front it out”.
ITV Racing has to be saluted for the openness they show when horses go down injured. If not during broadcast, they will inevitably update on social media – the good and the bad. They provide the ideal, and potentially only, public platform to educate and inform. They do so without the need to sensationalise like the written press, to sell newspapers.
Despite the time lag between racing finishing, and the printed newspapers being circulated, this search for headlines inevitably prevents any follow-up research from being done by journalists who, sadly, know little if anything about racing. This is of course because, despite the sport being the second most followed after football, the number of papers covering racing from an editorial viewpoint is tiny, and reducing every year. Those journalists that lived racing and understood it are a dying breed – replaced by headline seekers. The Racing Post, superb for racing in many ways, cannot do this as it is a “trade” paper preaching to the converted already in most cases.
This surely means that having accessible and informative data out in the public domain is needed. Not just statistics, but real stories depicting the care of horses, the veterinary advances, the life of a racehorse compared to other horses (and the positive comparisons that will show up). The industry has published a number of good videos about this, and once again, ITV Racing and the satellite channels do features on all aspects of a racehorses care and lifestyle – albeit, in the case of the latter to those who already have an understanding. Great advances have been made through procedures on
raceday, redesign of fences, retraining and aftercare of retired horses. Of course there is only so much we can do, but what we do should be contrasted with the plight of horses elsewhere in the general population. Far more horses die in a field for the want of even a small proportion of the attention and care afforded to thoroughbred racehorses.
We must broaden the appeal and accessibility of racing to the public – facing up to the negative and working to show the positives. Otherwise the only experience that the general public get of racing is when they see stories of deaths or injuries in the news – hardly an attractive prospect for a day out. Like it or not, the vast majority of the public do not understand or even follow racing. If the only news they get is negative, backed up by spurious claims from organisations that would do better to concentrate on real areas of abuse and cruelty, then this is their lasting and only impression of racing. When it comes to a vote therefore, the party that panders to these perceptions wins, and then, as we saw only a few months from the select committee, racing will be unable to save itself.
I, like many others, who have lived with horses from foals to retirees, always remember the ones we lose. Not through guilt but because we loved them and we miss them, and we wish it could have been different – comforted in the knowledge that we could not have given them a better life while we had them. And that is nothing to be ashamed of – it is something to publicly celebrate.