Monday 1 April 2019

Cheltenham Festival, Welfare Issues and the BHA – Time for Peace to Break Out in Our Sport

Oh dear, the mayhem of May-hem. What a period we’re going through. There’s been a calamitous loss of authority and leadership; no shortage of anger and alienation; a nationwide sense of disillusionment, with partisan groups feeling abandoned or betrayed; a permanent stand-off between experts, technocrats and bureaucrats vs. the populus and the professionals. And that’s just British Racing, never mind parliament.

Hard on the heels of Bombardier Beckett hurling the grenades out of the trainer trenches over prize-money, the Cheltenham Festival, and particularly the National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase over 3m 7½f, triggered an explosion of incendiary comments, letters and articles revolving around the need for “trainers to take back control” over welfare issues. Before dealing with that though, let’s at least celebrate the joy of this year’s Festival, and particularly one of the most emotional and uplifting hours that I’ve ever experienced in jumps racing when Bryony Frost won the Ryanair on Frodon and then the wonderful Andrew Gemmell’s horse Paisley Park won the Stayers’ Championship under a jockey who we regularly use, Aidan Coleman, for Emma Lavelle. The Thursday of the Festival is normally a quieter day sandwiched between the Champion Chase and Gold Cup, but this year was quite extraordinary. Racing could do far worse than create a whole series of videos around these two races and all the personalities involved, because they demonstrate how uplifting and joyous National Hunt racing can be. The “antis” of our sport, particularly Animal Aid, managed to raise 105,000 signatures in their petition to government, and that scared the living daylights out of the BHA. Just imagine how many supporters of NH racing would sign up to a campaign #IloveJumpsRacing, if such a mechanism existed, with links to the happy scenes from the Festival. Indeed, a key message is the need for racing to stand proud and promote itself to the British public. We have nothing to hide and are making a huge contribution to the happiness of the nation and its economy. On that note, I saw an interesting piece that the Festival contributes at least £100m to the local region, in which I live. Bravo!

I watched the National Hunt Chase with a group of friends, and we were all uncomfortable with what we witnessed this year. Eighteen horses took part: one unseated rider, five were pulled up, eight fell, there were four finishers and one of the fallers, the favourite Ballyward, died. In four of the last five runnings there have been fatalities. This race was one of carnage, and with far too much whip-flailing. Immediately after the race, three jockeys – Rob James, Noel McParlan and Declan Lavery – picked up a total of 37 days’ suspension. No horseman could or should have tolerated what happened in this race, and it was right to ban these riders. However the stewards made a fundamental mistake by concentrating on Declan Lavery, finishing third on Jerrysback and “continuing to ride when it appeared to be contrary to the horse’s welfare”. This opened the contentious debate about jockeys trying to achieve the best possible placing for their horses vs. the welfare issues associated with the race itself.

A torrent of invective then followed, which I actually found more unpleasant than the incident. Henry Daly ranted away about the BHA being “sorely misguided and misrepresentative of our great sport”, and that trainers should “take our lives and profession into our own hands rather than being led like lambs to the slaughter”. Tony McCoy accused the BHA of “bringing racing into disrepute”, and a wide-ranging, highly critical letter from Mick Channon, Henrietta Knight and Charles Egerton also argued for the need for professionals to “take back control” and consider a vote of no confidence in the BHA. The Irish trainer and commentator Ted Walsh hardly helped the situation by saying that if you didn’t like the reality of jumps racing, then you should “go and watch Peppa Pig”.

It didn’t take long for Lavery to appeal against his suspension, and a Disciplinary Panel soon quashed the sentence, making clear that “ …. the requirement of the rules to pull up tired horses has primacy over the requirement to achieve the best possible placing, and that it is no justification to continue on a horse to finish placed in a race if doing so would be contrary to the horse’s welfare.” While I’m sure we all agree with that decision, unfortunately it is of course a potential cheat’s charter, as it gives licence to a rider to stop a horse and then claim that it was on welfare grounds. Only a matter of time before that happens.

Two issues have surfaced from this whole disagreement. The first is about the role of amateurs at the Festival. Personally I agree with one of our trainers, Anthony Honeyball, that no-one would frame a race such as the National Hunt Challenge Cup. It feels as though it’s time to change the nature of that race, and either restrict it to professionals or at least put in place stricter eligibility criteria for both riders and horses. It no longer feels like a race worthy of the Festival. On a much broader note, is it also time to disallow the use of the whip by conditionals and amateurs for the vast majority, if not all, their races? This feels like an own goal for racing at a time when the whipping of horses has never been more contentious, particularly with Members of Parliament. I’ve resisted the temptation to draw a parallel with the use of Whips at Westminster.

The second issue is clearly to do with the breakdown in relationships between the BHA, trainers and grassroots racing. John Gosden and Philip Freedman have called for common sense and unity to prevail, and for bridges to be built as quickly as possible between the stakeholders of British racing. They are absolutely right to argue for warring factions to come together behind closed doors and resolve their differences. Public ranting and raving does terrible damage to the sport, and is hardly a persuasive lever with government. It may not be popular but we have to acknowledge that the All-Party Racing Group at Westminster is focused almost entirely on equine welfare and no matter what backwoods trainers may think, we cannot turn back the clock on this. The real danger is that the BHA loses the stewardship of welfare and for it to be handed to another, independent group. Doubtless in an attempt to head this off, the BHA has just announced that a new Horse Welfare Board is coming into operation, chaired by Barry Johnson, former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. A key remit of this Board is to create a new welfare strategy covering the whole industry. Much needed!

Two blogs on the trot have had to deal with trainer rants. I hope there won’t be a third one. Racing must rediscover the core competence of coalition-building …. even if parliament fails completely in its attempts to do so over Brexit. Peace needs to break out in racing, or we’ll have our own Brexit on our hands.

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