By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
2021 has been a great year of racing, but it hasn’t been a great year for racing.
I have always had an interest in horse racing, which stemmed from watching Channel Four on a Saturday afternoon at my Grandad’s side. Inspired, I dreamt of being the first female jockey to win the Grand National (but the fantastic Rachael Blackmore beat me to it!) I would do this riding a horse called ‘Scrumdillydumtious’ and we would win it five times. It makes me smile at the innocence of that. I know now that it would be somewhat impossible for a horse to win five consecutive Nationals as they can rarely sustain their form at that level for five years straight.
For as long as I can remember, I have been besotted with racehorses and, unlike regular teenage girls, pictures of horses and jockeys adorn my bedroom walls instead of popstars. I am passionate about attracting more young people to the sport, so two definite highlights of my year were the days when I created content for Careers In Racing’s Instagram page for their events at Doncaster and Warwick.
The first of these was an Explore Racing Day in August that began at the National Horseracing College in Doncaster, where our group was shown what it is like to study there. Later, I made my first trip to their local racecourse for the Racing League meeting. This concept has received criticism, but I am pleased to see that it will return in 2022. This particular raceday was so competitive, with the winning margin being no more than a length in all seven races. The prize pot was £50,000 per race and that is excellent for those who were able to take part, considering one of the biggest complaints throughout the year has been about insufficient prize money. I am not sure whether racing fans bought into the team aspect as much as the creators may have hoped, but I think its popularity will grow.
My trip to Warwick for the Pony Racing Authority’s Taster Day was incredible. Over one hundred children and their parents visited the racecourse to learn more about the industry. I strongly believe that horse racing is a sport young people can love and this day really showed that. All of the children seemed to be having a great time with the multiple activities and behind-the-scenes insight into the racecourse. There were four pony races that day and some extremely talented young riders showcased their skills. Hopefully, this day will have given the attendees a passion for horse racing that will last a lifetime.
In September, I was lucky enough to spend a morning at Olly Murphy’s yard and I am so grateful for the time Olly spent with me, answering my questions and chatting about his horses. His facilities are incredible and the horses were so happy – you could tell how loved they are. Some even wandered away from their food to come over for some fuss. It was amazing to meet Champagnesuperover and Linelee King, who I have followed for their entire careers, as well as some exciting youngsters like Butch and Go Dante. The team have been absolutely flying in the early stages of the new season with the likes of Brewin’upastorm and Thomas Darby winning big races and their success is well-earned and well-deserved.
In October, I visited Dan Skelton’s training operation. At the main yard, Lodge Hill, I was delighted to have my picture taken with long-time favourites Beakstown and Nube Negra. Alne Park Stud is a new venture for the Skelton team and they stand Dink, who is my absolute favourite stallion. You can’t help but go “Wow!” when you see him. He really is spectacular and a true gentleman, who was happy to stand and lap up our attention. Dan’s wife, Grace, gave me an incredibly fun and informative tour.
In early December, my family and I braved the elements and attended Aintree’s Becher Chase meeting. For me, this day encompassed everything that is great about the sport. I have made many friends through the horse racing social media community and I finally had the opportunity to put faces to names. It was such a laugh meeting the gang from the Under Starters Orders Podcast, who kindly had me on the show this year. The equine talent on the card made me giddy with excitement and the air was full of anticipation before the Cotswold Chase as everyone tried to spot Tiger Roll. He really is tiny! With hindsight, it was particularly special to see Native River too, now that he has gone off for a very well-deserved retirement. In the Becher, Snow Leopardess and Aidan Coleman made easy work of the infamous Grand National fences. Now, all roads must lead to the big race in April for this excellent mare. Before this race, I loved watching the horses as they went out onto the track because you really get a glimpse of their personalities – it was funny to see Abaya Du Mathan sticking his tongue out as he strolled down the walk-way. Occasionally, you get little tit-bits from the jockeys too like Craig Nichol, who partnered Hill Sixteen and said something along the lines of “let’s see how we get on against these big bastards”. They got on rather well, finishing a narrowly-beaten second.
I have loved every second of my racing trips this year. However, sometimes, I feel as though I’m guilty of looking at racing through rose-tinted glasses. My February 2020 article ‘Should Young People Get Into Horse Racing?’ was in defence of the sport, as I dissected the factors that could deter people from becoming involved in horse racing. However, in 2021, even more complex and difficult issues have surfaced, which have made it difficult to be a horse racing fan.
I love this sport because of the horses, but how can you say its participants and fans respect these beautiful creatures when that photo emerged? Or, when a BBC documentary reveals that a horse, who won multiple grade twos and ran in the Ladbrokes Trophy, ended up executed in a disgraceful abattoir because of a mysterious horse dealer (that no one has actually named yet)?
I am sure any racing fan will agree that it gets tiring defending racing to those who believe it is cruel. I am lucky that my friends support my ‘crazy obsession’ and I am very grateful to my mum and dad for encouraging my ambitions and accompanying me to various racing yards and courses around the country. However, occasionally, I encounter people who are less enthusiastic about my interest and like to ask, “Don’t you think it’s cruel, Samantha?”. I often reply with an impolitely forceful “No!”. Of course I don’t, or why would I be a fan?
The only thing I hate about horse racing is the fatalities. I could never hate racing but I think, one day this year, I declared that sentiment through tears and snot. It was the 21st of February, a Sunday. The Newbury Denman Chase card had been rescheduled to the day after the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot, a card that saw three horses (Severano, Yalltari and L’Ami Serge) die in consecutive races. Then, in the Denman Chase, a wonderful horse called The Conditional went wrong. The thought of it still brings a lump to my throat. I had watched this horse run in January 2020 at Warwick. I saw him again at Cheltenham when he won the Ultima – what a day that must’ve been for connections! He never ran a bad race, always tried his heart out and the whole thing was just utterly and completely unfair. He didn’t deserve to lose his life whilst racing. I turned the TV off after that. I couldn’t stomach it.
Over the last few weeks, two major court cases have put the weighing room dynamic under scrutiny. The Bryony Frost and Robbie Dunne case drew attention to bullying and sexual assault amongst jockeys. This has caused many people to question whether the British Horseracing Authority and Professional Jockeys Association are living up to their responsibility to protect their participants. Additionally, the repercussions from the High Court ruling regarding Freddie Tylicki’s horrific, life-changing injuries on that fateful day at Kempton will be felt in racing – and sport as a whole – for many years to come.
Overwhelmingly, racing has only been reported on by the mass media when the aforementioned issues have emerged. These are quite often the only glimpses of horse racing that most people will have and attach the poor actions of a minority onto the majority. They are left unaware of the other side of the story – the beautiful and exciting moments that happen every single raceday.
Throughout my GCSEs and now my A Levels, my teachers constantly told me that an article like this needs to be wrapped up with a conclusion that gives a self-assured, definitive, final judgement, but I can’t give you that. Racing’s situation is not black and white – it’s far from simple. I’d be lying or delusional if I said I had all the answers because I don’t. No one does. Despite this, everything I have mentioned here cannot be swept under the carpet and ignored.
In 2022, we all need to come together to help make positive changes to the sport.