Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake once again covers the topic of British horse racing's perceived insecurities as we approach an important time of year, with welfare always a hot topic during the upcoming Aintree Grand National meeting.

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Insecurity has been a problem at the top of horse racing for a long time. There seems to be a constant concern over what the wider world thinks of the sport and how we can package it to better attract new supporters. In recent times, this insecurity appears to have been the driver behind a number of decisions by the BHA that have seen them come in for heavy criticism from the sport’s participants.

While all the issues behind those decisions warrant individual discussion, the wider point of whether the BHA is right to be so frightened about what the non-racing world thinks of our sport is well worth fleshing out.

In less than a fortnight, we will all see what the BHA seem to be so afraid of, as public and social media negativity towards horse racing will hit its annual peak in the aftermath of the Grand National. The uniquely awkward reality that the most high-profile National Hunt race in the world is also the riskiest and harshest on the eye creates this perfect storm of negativity.

As they always do, certain newspapers, animal rights groups and social media accounts will publish images of falling horses complete with sensationalist headlines, all designed to generate clicks and outrage from the masses. If there is an equine fatality, those same sources will only ramp up their output.

This negativity will be tough to stomach for those of us that love our sport. Indeed, those that are already fearful and insecure about what the wider world thinks of us are likely to use it as evidence of the rising tide of negative public perception that threatens to drown our sport.

However, I would put forward the thought that such negativity isn’t something that we as a sport should be surprised or unduly perturbed by, as it simply mirrors the nature of modern society. What the popularisation of social media has resulted in is a culture of public outrage. Everybody now has a platform to air their views on whatever the issue of the day is.

The reality of horse racing is that on all bar a handful of days each year it is a niche sport that the majority of the general population has no interest in. For many of those with no interest in it, the basic thought of animals being used for sport will not sit well with them. Thus, when the sport is thrust in front of them in such a wild and dramatic a form as the Grand National with the flames of controversy being fanned by those seeking to capitalise on it, we shouldn’t be surprised that it elicits a negative response.

The thing is, such negativity is fleeting. These people don’t really care. The nature of social media is that people will pile in on the issue of the day and make their voices heard, but they will quickly move on to something else without giving a second thought to the subject that has come before. It’s the way of the modern world.

If those naysayers really do feel strongly about their dislike of horse racing, where are they? If there was a genuine will of the people to stop horse racing, there would surely be protesters out in force at the likes of the Cheltenham Festival. Yet, there isn’t. The only place these people show up to in any number is in the comments section under sensationalist articles on tabloid newspaper websites and on social media.

The 2018 Aintree Grand National
The eyes of the world will be on the Grand National in a couple of weeks

This reality is what makes it so ill-advised for the BHA to have put so much emphasis on the single event that seems to have struck so much fear into their hearts, the parliamentary debate on racehorse welfare back in October. Amongst all the focus on the comments of a few Labour representatives that were quite clearly ignorant of the facts and the sport itself, the origins and conclusions of the debate were lost.

It is worth remembering that the debate only came about as the British government has a system in place whereby if a petition hosted on their web space reaches 100,000 online signatures in a six-month period, it will be considered for a debate in parliament. The petition in question was started by an extreme animal rights organisation that has over 250,000 followers between Twitter and Facebook. Yet, the petition only just stumbled over the 100,000 mark on the very last day of the six-month period after a last-minute call to action by the group in question.

This tells its own story that the welfare of racehorses isn’t an issue that really engages even those with the most extreme outlook on animal rights, even when “taking action” is as simple as spending 30 seconds to fill in an online petition.

It was also lost in the fog of accentuated negativity that the conclusion of the parliamentary debate ultimately dismissed the case put forward by the animal rights group in question, stating: “Given that overall racehorse welfare is improving and fatalities at racecourses are falling, we do not see a need to set up another body responsible for racehorse welfare.”

While the BHA seems to have been scared stiff by the debate and its feared implications for the future of horse racing, they would be well served to take a step back and look at the big picture. While horse racing certainly has plenty of problems that need sorting out, it is still more than strong enough to fight its corner both with the public and politicians.

Considering the niche status of our sport in a such a highly-competitive battle for people’s attention, racecourse attendances, betting turnover and mainstream media coverage are all in great shape. As well as that, the horse racing industry is a colossal rural employer, generator of economic activity and attractor of inward investment. In terms of horse welfare, British racing is a world leader.

In the specific case of the Grand National, one-in-four people in Great Britain are expected to have a bet on it, approximately 10 million people will watch the race on ITV alone and in the region of 600 million will tune into it around the world. Those are numbers that are the envy of all bar the tip-top sporting events on the planet.

Ultimately, this is one of the main reasons why so many are frustrated with the approach of the BHA. Horse racing may be a minority sport, but it is very strong in the space that it occupies. It goes without saying that the quest to reduce avoidable risk must be never ending, but rather than getting so worked up about appeasing a wider public that doesn’t care for the sport, we should be standing up proud and focusing on those that do appreciate it.

With attracting new people into the sport being so important for its long-term future, the BHA and indeed all of racings supporters would do well to remember that there is nothing more attractive than confidence. It is about time we all started to show more belief in our great sport.

Kevin Blake
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