BRITISH RACING AND THE BHA APPROACHING CRUCIAL WATERSHED MOMENT
Forgive me. I am well aware that the majority of regular readers of this column, informed followers of horse racing that they are, will be very sick of the “whip debate” at this stage. However, please don’t abandon this page just yet, as there has been a very important development in the seemingly never-ending journey of British racing’s self-flagellation on this issue that needs to be discussed before it is too late.
Last week, an article by BBC journalist Frank Keogh prompted by a conversation with BHA chief executive Nick Rust contained the line “senior figures in racing are preparing for a possible ban on the use of the whip within three years.” This served to make public the rumours that have been circulating in recent weeks of such a move being seriously considered by the top brass of the BHA in light of the parliamentary debate on equine welfare back in October.
During that debate it was notable how scathing and indeed uninformed some of the Labour MPs in particular were towards horse racing and the role of the BHA in equine welfare. The possibility of a Labour government soon coming to power has put racing’s administrators into defensive mode and outlawing the use of the whip for encouragement is allegedly being considered as the big move to get ahead of the issue.
That a banning of the whip for the purposes of encouragement is seemingly being seriously considered by the BHA should set alarm bells ringing for any supporter of horse racing. I won’t repeat the case in favour of the use of the whip for encouragement as it has been covered in detail in this space on many occasions in the past.
In a nutshell, the modern whip when used correctly does not hurt horses and is not a welfare issue. There is no credible scientific evidence that contradicts that statement and the RSPCA are very much on board with this view. This represents the most potent defence imaginable to anyone that has concerns about whip use in racing.
Thus, for the BHA to be considering selling out that reality to address an alleged perception problem amongst an uninformed public should strike fear and indeed anger into anyone that cares for the long-term prosperity of horse racing. Even those within racing that are agnostic towards the whip or are in favour of tighter regulation of it should think very carefully as to the implications of and natural progression from such a move.
If British racing submits so weakly to the views of the ignorant and misinformed on the whip, it will set a very dangerous precedent. It is easy to defend the use of the whip for encouragement using science and informed opinion, but it is far more difficult to justify the racing of horses over obstacles which results in the public deaths of over 150 horses a year in Great Britain alone.
That will be an uncomfortable progression of thought for those of us that love National Hunt racing, but that is the natural direction of where the focus will shift to if the whip is outlawed for encouragement and it will be much more difficult to defend.
What makes all of this so frustrating is that the motivations behind the BHA even considering it are so misguided. All of these moves are designed to satisfy an alleged move in public opinion against horse racing. However, I would suggest that this notion is fundamentally flawed.
Firstly, lets address the issue of the “evidence” of this supposed problem which tends to come in the form of YouGov polls. The latest one from earlier this year surveyed 2106 adults in Britain and generated a headline of “68% of respondents either oppose (30%) or strongly oppose (38%) the use of the whip in racing.”
This makes for an eye-catching headline, but when one delves a bit deeper, it transpires the statement the respondents were asked to respond to was: “The racing industry says that whips are used on horses for safety and encouragement. Those against the use of whips on horses say they cause pain to horses and are used more often in the final stages of a race to bully horses to run to their physical limit. To what extent do you support or oppose the use of the whip in horse racing?”
That question is so loaded and factually inaccurate as to render the whole exercise meaningless. Frankly, given the question that was asked, it is a surprise that the figure of 68% in opposition wasn’t higher. That the survey was commissioned by Animal Aid, a group that has a publicly stated goal of having horse racing banned, is an example of the reality that there are people with much darker ambitions behind the curtains of such campaigns. Making decisions that are “informed” by such tainted surveys is the very epitome of bad practice.
Even if more poised surveys produced similar results, I would argue that it would still be ill-advised to fundamentally change the sport based on them. I have not come across a similar survey conducted in Britain, but back in 2010 Horse Racing Ireland commissioned a substantial survey to determine the size of the market for horse racing attendees in Ireland. 64% of the adults surveyed classed themselves as “horse racing rejecters”, having no interest in the sport or in attending it. One can be very sure that if a similar survey was conducted in Britain that this number would be notably higher.
Thus, the majority of people that are picked out for these surveys of the general public are already likely to have little or no knowledge of or interest in horse racing. They might well tick a box in a survey on the sport when asked, but beyond that, they don’t care. The notion that these “horse racing rejectors” will all of a sudden become interested in horse racing if the whip is banned for encouragement is embarrassingly misguided.
To give an anecdotal example of the indifference of the general public to this issue, last week Matthew Syed’s anti-whip article in The Times generated a huge amount of comment in racing. Syed has over 72,000 followers on Twitter, the vast majority of whom are unlikely to be followers of racing.
He posted the article onto his Twitter account on two occasions and it attracted a total of over 350 individual comments underneath it. If the surveys suggesting the majority of the British public are opposed to the whip are correct, surely many of those comments would have been in support of the article? Having read through them all, I could only find four replies that were in support of the argument put forth in the piece. Where are all the people that the BHA are considering banning the whip in an effort to appease?
The reality is that the number of people that oppose the whip and hold that opinion strongly enough to actually do anything about it beyond ticking a box in a survey is likely to be comparatively tiny. This is why the racing public, the people that care most about the sport, need to stand up on this issue and make their voices heard before they are potentially sold out by the BHA.
While on the subject of the BHA, one must ask why they have made next-to-no attempt to educate the public on the whip in the last decade. I’ve yet to be given any downsides to the suggestion that has been made in this space and others for many years of having a stall at racecourses where racegoers can handle and be educated on the modern whip, yet it still hasn’t happened.
A survey I conducted on Twitter last year suggested that approximately 75% of my racing-committed followers had never had the chance to handle a racing whip. This represents a gross failure by the BHA to educate racing’s own audience. That they are now seemingly considering fundamentally changing the sport to appease a largely uninterested public represents a spectacular failure of duty to defend the practices of the sport they run.
To conclude, Nick Rust and his team need to think very carefully about the direction they are taking on this issue. The sport of horse racing in Britain is currently sat atop of a very steep and slippery slope and the BHA are looming in the shadows behind it. If they choose to push it over the edge by banning the whip for encouragement despite all credible scientific evidence suggesting such a move is unnecessary, there will be no coming back.
Rust and his team surely don’t wish their legacy to be the group that started the sport’s irreversible slide into obscurity. Common sense, evidence-based decisions and education surely need to prevail on this issue? It is far too important to get wrong.