Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Racing For Change?

Every year Grand National day leaves me with mixed emotions. On the one hand I’m full of excitement, nerves and ultimately either joy or disappointment upon the race ending; yet on the other hand I’m usually full of anger at the myriad of ignorant, uninformed, nigh-on defamatory comments that crop up on social networking sites and in the comments section of articles about the race.

This year, I, for the most part, tried to bite my tongue when I saw people making these misguided statements about the people’s race and the sport of kings in general, but in the wake of the tragic deaths of two of the National competitors the anti-racing brigade had more ammunition than usual, and how do you defend the sport you love when two horses lay dead without seeming like you fall into the inaccurate stereotype these people try to perpetuate?

As angry as I am at the tabloids and even some supposedly more ‘high-brow’ media outlets for skewing the narrative of the day’s events to get a rise out of people who nothing about the sport, and for continuing with the frankly quite scary tradition we seemingly have in this country to promote fear and outrage rather than celebrate the good things in life, within the racing world we can’t just sweep this under the carpet and rest assured in the knowledge that in a few days time there will be a new controversy for Daily Mail readers to get worked up about.

The Grand National is too important to us to let people try and take it away so racing needs to explore the options and try and take steps to avoid these sort of gruesome images being the one thing the casual fans take away from the one race a year they probably watch.

What these steps are I don’t know, but if anyone has any sensible suggestions I know Aintree and the BHA would be willing to hear them. Plenty has already been done to make the race ‘safer’ and up until this year these steps appeared to have been succeeding; but a combination of good ground and sweltering heat conspired to make this year’s race one of the more dangerous in recent memory and unfortunately the millions of people around the world were witness, not to the unparalleled heroism and spectacle that racing is steeped in, but rather to the darker side of racing that is sad, tragic, heartbreaking but unfortunately at times inevitable.

I say inevitable because when you have a beast so large in its body, full of muscle and carrying a burden on its back essentially walking around on shards of glass for legs a breakage here and there is impossible to avoid. This isn’t exclusive to horse racing though, horses can break down simply running in the field, show-jumping or pulling some fat tourist round Central Park in a carriage. A lot of the people who abhor the Grand National claim to feel that way because they are horse lovers themselves and they think the race is cruel.

The Grand National and horse racing can be called many things but cruel is certainly not one of them.

Race horses are pampered, loved, treated like Princes and probably live better than some humans do; there isn’t an ounce of cruelty intended by anyone involved in racing and to compare our great sport to bull-fighting as some ignorant commentators have is utter nonsense.

Those who tuned in on Saturday and saw either Ornais or Dooney’s Gate lying lifeless on the track, covered in tarpaulin may have felt a twinge of sadness, or even a little sick at the sight but the people who will feel those losses the most are the stable lads and lasses who rode those horses out every day, fed and watered them and cared for them with the affection and tenderness that these majestic creatures deserve. Race horses may look alike but they are all unique, individual animals with personalities of their own, returning to their empty box on Saturday night must have felt like losing one of the family to connections of these horses.

Dangerous? Yes, there isn’t a sport more dangerous than horse racing. Cruel? I can’t think of a word less applicable to horse racing.

I don’t blame those out there calling for the blanket banning of horse racing, they are ignorant to the sport and think this one race is representative of the sport we all love. They see two dead horses that have essentially been left under a sheet whilst we cheer on the remaining horses and think that everyone involved in racing has no thought for the animals, only for the money, when nothing can actually be further from the truth.

The BHA and Racing for Change can do all they can to try and make the sport more appealing to the casual viewer and race-goer out there but racing will always have this stigma attached because the danger will never leave the sport, no matter how safe we try and make it. Horses will still die and people will still get upset at the fact that this is allowed to happen, but there is no other option.

Flat racing is not without its fatalities either and to stop racing all together would see the extinction of an entire breed as thoroughbreds ceased to exist. The fact that millions of horses would die if racing was to stop entirely seems lost on those calling for its head.

I’m not defending the deaths of horses, if there was a way to prevent it and keep racing as it is then I’d be the first to lend my support to such an initiative but there just isn’t. I won’t get into the ethical debate about whether we should be racing horses at all and the sport’s place in the world with animal cruelty such an emotive issue; however I would take great delight in pointing out the hypocrisy of some of those calling this great sport cruel should anyone wish to challenge me on the subject.

In these current times where we have millions unemployed and the economy hanging by a thread are people really so blind that they would call for the end of a multi-billion pound industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country in a plethora of different roles?

And sure, we could make the Grand National itself less dangerous. We could make it a 2 mile hurdles race but then it wouldn’t be the Grand National, the danger element and the spectacle that brings is why some hundreds of millions of people tuned in last Saturday to watch the race and why it is an economical juggernaut in terms of revenue in betting shops, receipts at the track and for the Liverpool area in general.

I’m not asking for people to stop complaining about horse racing and for people who actually believe the things they say to stop campaigning against the sport because the world would be a very boring place if everyone thought the same and as long as there are these people in the world putting pressure on the racing world then innovations will continue and hopefully horse fatalities will continue to be reduced if still not eradicated completely.

What I am asking for is a little perspective in certain quarters. The animal cruelty movement are seizing on this weekend’s events because they know so many people in the public saw what happened and will have it fresh in their minds, they need a wave of support like this to push forward their cause. But those with the casual outrage, with the disasters in Japan and New Zealand still so raw and the crises in Libya and Ivory Coast amongst others still raging on it feels like your attentions could be made better use of elsewhere.

Racing without a doubt needs to get its house in order; we can’t have the images that populated the front pages of Sunday’s papers being the lasting image people takeaway from our sport’s showpiece again. It should be the image above that is the one etched into the memory.


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