Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake discusses the BHA fining trainer Henry Oliver for waving his arms behind one of his runners at Uttoxeter and what he sees as the ill-advised comment the organisation made on the topic.

  • Monday 28 January
  • Blog
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It has been said in this space on many occasions over the years, but the BHA still has the ability to raise the bar when it comes to making mountains out of molehills that generate unnecessary negative publicity for the sport of horse racing.

The latest episode in this sorry saga started when the raceday stewards at Uttoxeter fined trainer Henry Oliver £140 for waving his arms behind one of his runners that was proving reluctant to start in a handicap chase. That fine can now be added to the Hall of Shame of silly punishments dished out by raceday stewards in an effort to enforce what are needlessly heavy-handed rules that aren’t fit for their purpose.

At the very start of the below replay, you can see trainer Henry Oliver in picture.

That particular Hall is getting quite cluttered now. Remember Peter Hedger being fined the same amount (subsequently returned) for one of his staff splashing water at one of their horses that was reluctant to go down to the start at Epsom last August? Don’t forget jockey Raul De Silva being given a one-day ban for lightly throwing a small amount of Polytrack at his mount’s hindquarters as she was resisting being brought forward into starting stalls at Chelmsford in November 2017 also holds a prominent position in it.

It goes without saying that the rules that were adjudged to have been transgressed in those cases really need to be revised to make them more appropriate for the real world of dealing with thoroughbreds. Horses constantly need encouragement and guidance to do what we want them to do and publicly punishing people for doing so in what were very sympathetic ways is just madness.

However, as embarrassing and needless as the fine given to Henry Oliver was, the BHA managed to make it far worse by responding to the criticism they received for it with a statement that was incredibly misjudged. It really does need to be seen to be believed, so here it is:

The line that really and truly jumps off the page is: “We set a lot of store in our sport behind the fact that we do not force horses to race and they do so of their own free will.”

Really?! If one was to apply that “free will” line of reasoning to pretty much any aspect of horse racing, the whole sport could be called into question from top to bottom.

By that rationale, how can the sport possibly justify stalls handlers blindfolding and/or physically pushing horses into starting gates? What about the starter’s assistant chasing after horses cracking a long tom after the tape goes up at a start? To take it even further, how can jockeys kicking and slapping horses with whips to ask them to run faster and/or jump obstacles be justified? There is no bottom to this particular can of worms.

Everything we do with horses from leading them, applying tack to them and riding them involves encouraging, asking and sometimes telling them to do what we want them to do. Anyone that isn’t comfortable with that basic thought is in the wrong sport, as that is the reality of training and dealing with highly-strung animals that weigh 500kg.

Pretending that isn’t the case and drawing the official line at waving hands, splashing water or throwing sand at them in the interests of “public perception” is incredibly ill-advised and unsustainable.

Indeed, the animal rights groups that are actively campaigning for horse racing to be banned outright must think all their Christmas’s have come together. They now have the perfect ammunition to attack the entire sport of racing with in the shape of the “free will” argument and it was hand delivered to them with the BHA. As PR own goals go, this was a shocker.

The sad thing is, one can be sure that the BHA’s intentions are sincere. It is clear that they were rattled by the parliamentary debate on equine welfare late last year, but their response to it has been so defensive and weak that they seem resigned to being overrun by ignorant opponents of horse racing rather than meeting them head-on with a confident and informed defence of our great sport.

It really is very, very concerning for the future of horse racing in Great Britain that those in charge of running it have so little confidence in it. In this day and age, such a weak approach is not compatible with the long-term prosperity of horse racing, particularly National Hunt racing.

Going forward, what seems clear from the outside is that the BHA is sorely lacking in practical knowledge of horsemanship at the top of the organisation. Anyone with even middling hands-on experience of dealing with thoroughbreds would never have allowed that “free will” statement to see the light of day. One can only assume that such statements have to pass an array of eyes before being published, so that it wasn’t shot down at source is a damning endorsement of the wider issue.

It is often said that common sense isn’t very common. In the world of horse racing, one would think that horse sense would be widespread. Alas, it seems that both common and horse sense seem to be lacking in the BHA offices at present and the primary sufferer as a result of this will be the sport of horse racing.

Kevin Blake
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