Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake discusses privilege and nepotism in the horse racing industry.

  • Monday 01 October
  • Blog
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Whatever the walk of life, the roles of privilege and nepotism are always bubbling close to the surface. The question of which is more important, what you know or who you know, will always be there and is inescapable in life. Sport is no different and indeed, it could readily be argued that horse racing is the most vulnerable to having its meritocracy corrupted by the influence of privilege and nepotism. 

At the outset of this discussion, it is important to acknowledge that horse racing is unusual in the sporting world in that it is notoriously difficult to accurately quantify just how much influence the human participants have had on the result of a horse race. While trainers and jockeys can obviously impact on the racing performance of a horse, it is the horse’s ability that contributes most to their results. Thus, the merits of the human participants are not so readily exposed in competition as they would be in other sports or vocations. 

For example, the best trainer or jockey in the world cannot transform a moderate racehorse into a champion, but a moderate trainer or jockey will be capable of winning at the highest level with a champion horse. Because of this, the importance of the quality of horse received in the careers of trainers and jockeys cannot be overstated. Without the horse power, they simply cannot compete at the highest levels. 

With those that own and control the all-important horse power having absolute discretion as to how to distribute and manage it, reputations can be made and lost on their whims. Due to the difficulty of accurately ranking racing professionals, the decisions as to who buys, trains and rides their horses for them can often be decided on factors other than merit. In the common cases where owners seek the advice of trainers, jockeys or agents, the lines of meritocracy can often become further blurred due to allegiances, family-based or otherwise, in what is a very closely-knit industry. 

All of this adds up to result in many appointments and situations in racing that are commonly labelled as nepotistic. Be it trainers giving rides to family members or job appointments that are seemingly more so based on pedigree than the content of their CV, the list of examples goes on and in many cases, the accusations seem more than credible. 

However, there is another side to the coin of privilege. It isn’t one that is added to the discussion very often, as most benefactors of such advantages are sufficiently self-aware to know that playing the “poor me” card from a position of privilege is far more likely to attract scorn than sympathy. That said, if a balanced discussion is to be had on the subject, the difficulties and disadvantages that come with privilege have to be added into the mix. 

Firstly, it would be very ill-advised to assume that privilege and easy opportunities are a one-way street to success and recognition in horse racing or in any other walk of life. Those that receive a leg-up may get a head start, but there is a significant price to pay for it in terms of greatly increased scrutiny and pressure to succeed. 

From the outset, they are expected to be better. Any mistakes they make are likely to be publicly magnified to a much greater extent than similar errors made by self-made individuals who have the luxury of relative anonymity as they learn their trade. In this age of social media where most young professionals are accessible to all commenters, such scrutiny can be particularly harsh. 

With jealousy and schadenfreude inevitably being attracted to such appointments like bees to honey, criticism can quickly turn to abuse and ridicule. Learning the ropes in any pursuit in life is tough enough, but doing so under an unforgiving public spotlight can be too much for what are often young and immature people. Such pressure will inevitably break more than it makes. 

Even if the person in question can work past the scrutiny and make the best of the opportunities given to them, all too often their achievements will still have a privilege asterisk next to them. Such individuals will always be fighting to prove themselves and overcome accusations that they only got to where they are because of who they are or the opportunities that were gifted to them. Even for those that go on to achieve greatness in their fields, it can still be a struggle to shake off that asterisk. 

While both privileged and non-privileged backgrounds have their pros and cons, the main takeaways from this whole debate can be boiled down to the overriding importance of attitude and what one chooses to make of their own talent and circumstances. For all that both backgrounds can have negative associated with them, they can all be flipped around to be positive motivators to succeed in life independent of or in spite of circumstances. 

For those that find themselves in a privileged position, they must be aware of the price to be paid for their head start. They must be willing to work through the difficulties of scrutiny, pressure and jealousy that can come with it. Indeed, these difficulties can be used as a motivating chip on the shoulder to drive them on to prove themselves based on their own merits rather than be judged solely on the opportunities they were given. 

Similarly, rather than using a lack of privileged opportunities as an excuse for a lack of success, people in non-privileged circumstances can use it as a motivator to work harder to earn the chances they feel they deserve on their merits. 

As someone that came into racing with no background or connections in the industry, I write all of the above with sincerity. Sure, getting a foot in the door would have been easier with a well-placed connection, but once my foot was in, it was very rare that I ever felt significantly disadvantaged by the lack of a racing background. Horse racing is much more open minded and welcoming to “outsiders” than people tend to give it credit for. Good people that are passionate about the sport and are willing to learn and work hard will get on just fine and be welcomed into the fold. 

So, while it is common to hear people bemoan their own lack of privilege or throw stones at others that they perceive as benefiting from it, they perhaps shouldn’t be so quick to undervalue the benefits of anonymity at the outset of their careers. The road may be longer, but the gradients are kinder, the potholes aren’t as damaging and the final destination can often be far more rewarding.

Kevin Blake
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