Kevin Blake

In light of a recent documentary that damaged the Irish greyhound industry, Kevin Blake urges the horse racing industries of Britain and Ireland to get on the front foot on welfare issues.

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Does horse racing as an industry ask enough hard questions of itself and how the outside world views it? We waste so much time self-flagellating on matters such as the regulation of the whip, yet actual horse welfare issues that are potentially much more damaging to the status of the social license that horse racing currently holds in wider society are rarely discussed.

What prompts the posing of this question is a recent example of just how badly things can go for an animal-based industry that doesn’t have its house in order on welfare. Last month in Ireland, the national broadcaster RTE aired a programme that investigated the greyhound industry.

It asked some hard and valid questions, but it was also clear that it sought to sensationalise the issues and shock the viewer with graphic footage of questionable relevance. That the governing body of the Irish greyhound industry the Irish Greyhound Board choose not to mount a meaningful defence of their industry on the programme only served to make things worse for them.

The severe public outcry that followed the broadcast has been notably damaging for greyhound racing in Ireland. Numerous sponsors have pulled out of the sport and the Irish Greyhound Board was called in front of a government committee to explain itself. There have also been calls for the withdrawal of government funding for the sport. For a sport that was already under pressure, it has been a public relations disaster that it really didn’t need.

That the reaction to the programme has been so strong in Ireland, it should act as a serious wake-up call for the Irish horse racing industry. The issue of animal welfare is not one that gets a big airing in Ireland compared to Britain. Ireland as a country isn’t that far removed from its agriculture-focused past. By and large, this is reflected in a more understanding attitude to the realities of rural life and the working relationship between man and beast.

However, that understanding will only lessen as time goes on and society as a whole is turning away from anything that could be perceived as exploiting animals. One only has to look at the rise of veganism and the changing attitudes to agriculture around the world to see which way the wind is blowing on these issues.

With that in mind, the horse racing industry needs to be self-aware enough to ask itself some hard questions. While horse welfare within racing has never been in a better place, one potential weak spot in our industry is the question of what happens the horses that don’t make the racecourse and those that are retired from racing.

Could our industry be vulnerable to an expose that set out with an agenda to paint that aspect of our industry in its worst light?

That two recent cases (case one and case two) in Ireland regarding neglected thoroughbreds attracted extensive coverage in the national media highlighted the damage that can be done when a very small minority let down the majority.

Thus, the racing and breeding industries cannot afford to set anything but the highest standards to prevent cases such as those coming about. There is great work being done behind the scenes at present to bring thoroughbred traceability up to the highest-ever levels. The integration of 30-day notification of foal births in Ireland this year and the planned introduction of digital passports in the near future will be big steps forward in this regard.

That said, the horse racing industry can’t have any doubts as to how well prepared they are to deal with a situation such as what the Irish greyhound industry found itself in last month.

Rightly or wrongly, in the modern era these battles are won and lost in the media. It isn’t enough for the horse racing industry to have excellent welfare protocols/standards in place and to be doing the right thing every day, they have to showcase that to the world via social media and through the press.

They also have to have the appropriate public relations protocols in place so that they can quickly and clearly answer any scrutiny in a manner that would give an uninformed observer confidence that the industry is at the top of its game when it comes to horse welfare.

With that in mind, many readers will be familiar with the great strides that have been made in recent decades with regard to finding homes for retired racehorses and retraining them to do other jobs. There are so many positive stories out there that reflect the excellent job the vast majority do in looking after their thoroughbreds outside of racing.

However, it could readily be argued that horse racing needs to do a better job at controlling the narrative when it comes to horse welfare by better showcasing that work to the public.

In Britain, the Retraining of Racehorses do a fine job of doing just that with their excellent work in all things ex-racehorses and their showcasing of it via their social media output. However, the Irish racing industry lags some way behind in promoting the great work that is being done all over the country with former racehorses.

For example, there is a thriving racehorse-to-riding-horse scene in Ireland, with former stars of the track turning out at shows all over the country looking in wonderful order and enjoying their new jobs. At last year’s Dublin Horse Show the likes of Don Cossack and Rule The World competed against each other in what is always a wonderful spectacle.

This is everything the Irish horse racing industry should be seeking to promote as an example of how we look after our retired racehorses, yet very little is made of it in the racing media. Similarly, multitudes of thoroughbreds end up playing polo or competing in various other equestrian disciplines. There are sure to be some great stories in amongst them, but again we don’t really see these feel-good stories promoted to the public.

The Irish National Stud represent an excellent example of what can be done in this area. They do a wonderful job with their Living Legends where visitors can go and meet racing heroes of the past such as Hurricane Fly and Beef Or Salmon. They also take their stars to parade at race meetings on occasion and are always very well received.

In terms of what could potentially be done by the Irish racing industry to advance all of these causes, it can perhaps take some inspiration from the aforementioned example of the beleaguered Irish greyhound industry. When the Irish Greyhound Board were in front of the Oireachtas agricultural committee earlier this month, they revealed plans to establish a “Care Fund” for retired greyhounds. 

This will be financed by a levy on the registration of every greyhound, attendance income, prize money, sponsorship income and a percentage of the government funding the industry receives. The Fund will be run by external appointees and will look to establish greyhound care centres that will seek to care for and rehome retired greyhounds.

While the Irish greyhound industry had to announce their plan in the aftermath of highly-damaging publicity, one can’t help but think that the Irish horse racing industry would be well advised to get on the front foot by looking into creating a similar fund under their own steam.

The prototype for what could be created is already there is the shape of the aforementioned Retraining of Racehorses in Britain which is funded through levies and other industry sources.The mechanism to create such a levy is already in place in Ireland with funds for various organisations such as the Jockeys Emergency Fund and Irish Stable Staff Association already being deducted from prize money.

This fund could also be used to finance other positive programmes for retired racehorses such as bringing more high-profile retirees to parade at the races, country shows or other public events. One only has to look at the impact the legendary Subzero has had in his retirement in Australia to see the potential for this sort of activity.

In practical terms, thoroughbreds are clearly a much more difficult proposition to rehome than greyhounds, but the creation of a fund to support the process would be sure to help. The thought would be to use the fund to support and promote accredited riding centres where newly-retired racehorses could be sent to be evaluated for their suitability to other ridden activities and then rehoming those that adapt well.

This would be a great help in getting as many thoroughbreds into an active retirement as possible.

While it is an uncomfortable conversation, this fund could also help answer the question of what to do with thoroughbreds that are found to be either physically and/or mentally unsuited to either active or inactive retirements. Rather than passing such horses onto someone else and risk them becoming neglected due to the difficulties in managing them, the fund can help conclude these situations in a responsible manner by subsidising their humane euthanasia.

It isn’t a pleasant subject, but we as an industry need to take responsibility for it rather than passing the buck and risking unintended welfare consequences further down the line. 

All told, as the Irish greyhound industry has learned to its cost in recent weeks, being unprepared for aggressive scrutiny from the outside rarely ends well and it isn’t much good shutting the door after the horse has bolted.

The Irish horse racing industry would do well to learn from the mistakes of the greyhound industry and look to get ahead of the welfare questions that are sure to be forthcoming in what is a changing world.

As any boxer will tell you, it’s the punch that they don’t see coming that tends to do the most damage. Horse racing needs to be willing to objectively look at itself, identify any weaknesses in its defence and close those holes before they are attacked.

Whether we like it or not, it isn’t a question of if those attacks come, it’s a question of when. Horse racing should aspire to be proud of and have nothing to hide on horse welfare in the industry, but it also needs to be ready to defend itself with skill and confidence.

Kevin Blake
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