On collecting his award, having been voted Racing Writer of the Year at the 52nd annual Horserace Writers & Photographers Association Derby Awards lunch, Alastair Down made some properly astute observations in his acceptance speech. The problem is, as is often the way with these alcoholic-infused festive events, I can no longer remember exactly what he said.
Somewhere in between congratulating his fellow nominees and promoting his new vocation for counselling, Alastair expressed regret at the reduction in the number of full-time racing correspondents employed to cover the sport. He said that their role, the same role that he hoped he’d accomplished to some degree in recent years, was to bring some of the emotion engendered by a day at the races to a wider audience.
It’s all very well being able to look up the facts and figures in the results section of a newspaper – the pounds and ounces, the lengths, necks and furlongs that act as a summary for each race. But that doesn’t help you to understand the majesty, the beauty, the speed and elegance of the horses, the energy of the winning jockey, the relief of the trainer or the joy of the winning racehorse owner. Not in the same way as if you were there. That’s the skill of a dedicated racing correspondent.
It’s a contextual gift which was lacking in coverage of this week’s publication, by the British Horseracing Authority, of the report into equine fatalities at last season’s Cheltenham Festival. That was not the fault of the BHA – the dry media bulletins condensed several months’ worth of investigation into a few seconds of airtime. The result, to the uninitiated, sounded as though the sport of horseracing had only just woken up to the idea that it might have to change in order to respond to public perceptions about animal welfare.
The truth, of course, is that no one cares more about the welfare of racehorses than the people who look after them on a regular basis. Anyone who watches a race live at a racecourse, who examines the emotions of those closest to the horses, will witness the love and devotion inspired by the equine participants. The grief experienced, when a horse is fatally injured, is felt hardest on the racecourse by the very people who are most engaged with the sport.
Cold statistics may lend themselves to brief sound-bites, but they do little to flesh out the full picture. As you might expect, racecourse executives have been focused on the issue of equine welfare for many years. It is our prime consideration when we maintain our tracks and develop our facilities. There has never been so much veterinary expertise focused on reducing the risks associated with the sport. The rules around withdrawing a horse, prior to the start of a race, are all now written with equine welfare in mind.
A few years ago, the BHA developed a slogan which reflected our approach: “The horse comes first.” It may not have reached as wide an audience as anyone would have liked – but the statement is as true now as it was then.
The emphasis on improving safety in our sport is vitally important. It shouldn’t preclude us, though, from continuing to explain just how high the standard of care already is for our equine participants. And we should support the media outlets which continue to report on the emotional highs and lows provided by the sport.
Some of those outlets provide useful tipping services too. Sadly this one doesn’t – our selection for Sunday’s card at Carlisle is One For Rosie in the Smarkets Novices’ Hurdle.