Go Racing Green With Debbie Matthews

A group at Fergal O’Brien’s with Debbie (Centre)

According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. In recent years, there have been great strides made into defeating the stigmas surrounding mental health issues like depression and anxiety. In January 2019, Debbie Matthews founded Go Racing Green, an initiative which aims “to make racing accessible and inclusive in every way for anyone”.

Life dealt Debbie a number of savage blows in quick succession, including “losing a baby, losing my best friend to a brain tumour at 38, my step daughter-in-law losing her battle with cystic fibrosis at just 22 years of age and a lot of other personal things with work and family. I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD and my anxiety went through the roof.” This resulted in her not leaving the house for several years because “I felt safer to stay at home in my own bubble.”

Horse racing wasn’t something prominent in her life until the age of thirty-nine in March 2017, “I was at home and pregnant with my little boy. I suffered a lot from severe nausea during the first few months especially and I started watching the Cheltenham Festival, which must have been on ITV. It was definitely the second day as I remember watching the Queen Mother Champion Chase and thinking “Wow, that horse can fly.” Turned out that horse was Altior and I then started following him and racing.”

Debbie And Altior

In a way, Altior is partly responsible for inspiring Go Racing Green and he helped Debbie through post-natal depression and to go back out into the world, “Altior will always be special to me for firstly getting me into racing, and secondly getting me through a torrid time. After my son was born in October 2017 I suffered with terrible post-natal depression and it was following him through that National Hunt season that massively helped me through it and gave me focus.”

“On 19th January 2019, Altior was declared to run at Ascot, which is around two hours from where I live. I am not sure why, but I just decided that morning that I was going to go and see him ‘for real”. I put out at a tweet to the effect that I was trying to beat my anxiety and it seemed to hit home with a lot of people. It was picked up on by Stuart Riley from the Racing Post, who did an article with me on the Monday; on the Tuesday, I was at Seven Barrows meeting Altior; I was front page Racing Post on the Wednesday and all of a sudden I was flooded with messages from people facing challenges who wanted to go racing and faced barriers.”

From then on, #GoRacingGreen picked up momentum with the help of Unibet, “I was extremely lucky to be offered community sponsorship from The Kindred Group (Unibet Racing) for the community element of the project, which enabled me to spend more time in terms of the stable visits and social events, and the virtual support taking place at the moment. Also, should a racecourse wish to have raceday sponsorship from Unibet, they must take up the #GoRacingGreen initiative as part of the sponsorship contract, so that’s fantastic.”

To Debbie, there are two elements to Go Racing Green. “Firstly, creating a community of people to support one another, be that online or in person. There is a huge online community, as well as those that meet up at racedays and other social events and stable visits that take place. Some of those people have challenges or love and care for a person that does. Some just want to support the initiative and be there for those that do. We will never ask. If you want to share that information, we fully support openly talking without any judgement. If not, then that doesn’t matter.”

The community are easily recognisable on the racecourse with their distinctive green bobble hats, which were kindly purchased by Tom Lacey. In regard to stable visits, they have been to Seven Barrows, Dan and Claire Kubler’s, Jo Davis’, George Margarson’s, Amy Murphy’s, Phil McEntee’s and Fergal O’Brien’s so far, where they have a look at the gallops, meet the trainers and some jockeys and, most importantly, get hands-on with the horses. “They are for small groups who may find larger visits a little overwhelming, or may not be able to actually get to a raceday yet, so it gives them an opportunity to meet new people in an environment they love, knowing they’re safe. The therapeutic value and love for the horse is at the core of our community,”

In the absence of the Grand National due to the Coronavirus, there will be the first renewal of the Unibet Go Racing Green Grand National. An added bonus is that there will be commentary from Richard Hoiles and Mark Johnson. “It’s free to enter and you have the chance to win a weekend break, which I am sure will be welcome at the end of this.” I am particularly excited for this as I am the owner of number 20 Scrumdillydumtious in the big race! All the information for the event can be found here- https://goracinggreen.co.uk/%23grg-grand-national

On 2nd May, there will be the Go Racing Green Guineas as it sadly looks like racing won’t have resumed by the time the Newmarket showpiece is ran. On social media, Debbie is running a #GRGChatHour, “Whilst we are in lockdown, the community support continues, albeit virtually. Every evening at 7:30pm, there is a #GRGChatHour with a different theme to keep positive conversations going throughout this torrid time we are in, and I will do this every single night until we come out of other side.” This is something I have really been enjoying and the participation from the Twitter community has been excellent.

The second element to Go Racing Green is “working with racecourses to make them inclusive to everyone. To remove labelling; to make race day promotion more inclusive and welcoming; to train staff in areas like Autism Awareness and Dementia Friends, and to create safe and quiet spaces on course should someone need it. Also to produce an online sensory guide and accessibility guide so those that wish to go racing have as much pre-information as possible to help them plan their day. It isn’t just a case of well here’s a space, or reading from a book, or even looking at what other industries are doing that they say is working for them as often feedback from those who use it is very different to what those who have put it in place say. It’s a puzzle and every piece needs to happen to make it complete and make it work.”

At Salisbury

Nottingham, Chester and Newbury are all Go Racing Green racecourses, which means they have quiet areas for people who suffer with invisible illnesses and have trained staff. Two more courses are soon to be added to the list – Carlisle and Salisbury. “The staff at Salisbury have already had their training and have some fantastic work going on there. They are absolutely embracing this for all the right reasons.”

Debbie still feels overwhelmed by the positive response to Go Racing Green – “ I have made so many friends and have so much support. The growing community are vital to the project too, because their feedback on what they need and their raceday experiences mean more than anything you can learn from a textbook because it’s real life. We message each other, support and encourage one another. There isn’t a day that goes by when I am not talking to at least one of the community.”

She went on to say, “Also, I have had excellent support from the racing media – The Racing Post, ITV Racing, At The Races, Luck On Sunday, Chris Cook at The Guardian and local TV and radio, who have all helped spread the word. Racing Together, Nick Rust and his team from The BHA, Rod Street from Great British Racing and Paul Swain from The RCA have also taken a keen interest,”

What Debbie is proudest of is that Go Racing Green has started conversions on subjects that, even a few years ago, would have been considered taboo by some, “One person came into the #GoRacingGreen room at Nottingham and told me his challenges and said to me at the end his wife nor his mother had any idea, but he was going to go home and tell them, and if that room hadn’t been there that day, that conversation would never have taken place and he may never have got help. When I present to racecourses, I always say please do not underestimate the difference this will have on people – it will enable people to live and not just exist.”

The lockdown and this extended period of ‘social distancing’ is going to be really hard on everyone’s mental health, especially those isolated away from loved ones. However, Debbie hopes that some positives can come out of these unprecedented circumstances, “I hope after this period of lockdown more people will empathise with that [the challenges faced by some people] more than ever.” Also, Debbie strongly urges anyone struggling with a mental health problem to not be afraid to talk about it, “However trivial you think it might be. Whoever you talk to. And if you talk to someone and you think they don’t get it – people mean well but often come out with very impractical advice and suggestions – talk to someone else. Or talk to me. Depression and anxiety is a lonely existence and it can lead to many other mental and physical health problems, relationship and family problems, addictions. It isn’t easy, there are still many out there that don’t believe that sharing your problems is the done thing, but this initiative is all about encouraging that.”

The future of #GoRacingGreen looks bright. Along with more racecourses joining in, Debbie is “in the process of the first stages of setting up #GoRacingGreen as a charity so some additional funding options are available to me to allow this project to meet its objectives, so this is the main thing I am looking at at the moment, and am grateful that I have people helping me with this.” After the lockdown, Debbie hopes to reschedule the stable visits and racecourse trips put on hold by the pandemic, “When the period of lockdown is over I will be arranging a couple of #GoRacingGreen social events – one north and one south! No definitive plans yet, it may depend on the time of year, but there has been lots of interest in this amongst the community so I think it would be a nice thing to do.”

To me, #GoRacingGreen epitomises one of the things that is so great about horse racing – the community feel of the fanbase. You only need to look on Twitter to see this – Debbie’s #GRGChatHour, everyone posting their favourite racing photo or saying which four horses mean the most to them. This initiative helps so many people and, crucially, is working towards making racing as accessible as possible, which is a wonderful thing.

For Debbie to have gone through what she has and come out the other side to make such a positive difference to the racing community is something that I am in awe of. Go Racing Green and the work Debbie has done so far should be shouted about from the rooftops. I am really grateful to Debbie for answering my questions and I wish her and Go Racing Green all the best for the future. 💚💚

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