With horse racing’s biggest jumps festival approaching, I wanted to reflect on what has been a hectic and, undoubtedly, troubled few weeks for horse racing.
Personally, the last couple of weeks have been hard. If you’ve read some of my earlier articles for Rein It In you might know that I’ve been going racing since I was very small. When I first went racing, jockeys were my idols and I enjoyed the quick chats I had with them as they walked by. The horse racing industry is unique in that you can feel so involved just by going to the races from time to time. What helps, and what racing does well, is keeping the stars of our sport, horses and jockeys, close to the spectators.
I decided to write this article because of the surge in media attention over the last week or so. It seems that the scandal surrounding Gordon Elliott has revealed the underlying poor perception that the general public has of horse racing. I don’t want to comment on the shocking photo itself but some of the subsequent comments about the sport went completely against my experience of the treatment of horses. I’ve thought quite a lot about this negative-bias towards racing since the photo was released. It seems as though the battleground is public opinion. This has been a problem for racing ever since I’ve been going and the racing world seems genuinely terrified of accusations of animal cruelty, justifiably so when we all know the damage this can cause when in fact, the opposite is the case.
I think a large part of it is to do with the urban/rural divide – many of those commenting in the press and on social media appear to be from towns and large cities. Coming from a town myself, I can understand that it’s very easy to criticise the industry as a whole when you know very little about it and the nearest racecourse is often many miles away. Most people will never visit a racecourse in their lives and so you can understand why many people criticised racing after seeing the photo in the press.
In my opinion, we must now decide, as a sport, whether we belittle those criticising from the outside or whether we welcome them in with open arms. It’s easy to choose the former option – we simply label our critics as ignorant and move on. Our sport becomes increasingly more closed-off to the wider public and we risk the potential closure of racecourses and, in the worst case, our sport being banned. I don’t think anyone who works in or is associated with our industry wants that. Therefore, let’s choose the harder option – let’s welcome horse racing’s biggest critics in. I’m under no illusions of how hard this task would be to complete, and we may risk alienating racing’s most loyal supporters. However, now is the perfect time to move horse racing forward and to listen to and address the concerns of those criticising it the most. Perhaps we need to start asking ourselves these questions: Do we still need to make our sport safer? If not, how do we explain that? How can we make the experience of going racing more accessible and enjoyable? How can we open up our racing yards for everyone (including animal rights activists) to see how the horses are treated?
These are hard questions to answer and of course, I don’t have the answers to all of them, but here’s a couple of suggestions:
Let’s get behind charities like Racing to School who do a great job organising visits to racecourses and stables for young people. In fact, I’d like a similar initiative to be organised for the wider public as well.
Let’s really promote, yet again, the fact that Under 18s can go racing for free. This helped to hook me into the sport and I’m sure this scheme will continue to open up racing to the younger generation.
Let’s carry out and publish more scientific studies into the horses themselves. For example, the University of Exeter’s study of equine vision in 2018 led to the trial of fluorescent yellow on all hurdles and guard-rails.
It’s been a worrying time for horse racing and one which has demonstrated just how we have a responsibility to address the clear negative public perception surrounding the sport. Let’s not just label our critics as ignorant, instead if we’ve got nothing to hide then let’s listen attentively to their concerns, welcome them in to see our overwhelming love for horses and go about making our industry as transparent as it possibly can be.
Thank you for reading,