Nick Rust: racing must go 'a lot further and faster' on welfare
The BHA unveiled its report into six equine fatalities at this year's Cheltenham Festival on Wednesday, announcing 17 recommendations designed to reduce injuries at the festival and in jump racing as a whole – but chief executive Nick Rust warned the sport must go "a lot further and faster" in the coming years.
The Grand Annual will be limited to 20 runners, down from 24, veterinarians will examine every runner at the festival before they compete, and there will no longer be any weight allowances for riders in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle.
The future of amateur rider participation at the Cheltenham Festival in its current form is also "under material threat", the report stressed, particularly as the four-mile National Hunt Chase, restricted to amateur riders and novice chasers, has the highest rate of incident at the festival with close to one in eight runners falling or being brought down. The report urged amateur riders to be aware they are subject to particular public scrutiny.
But Rust said the Cheltenham review – which described the six deaths at this year's festival as "simply unacceptable" – was just the starting point for a wider and ongoing look at welfare standards and called for the entire sport to unite behind the regulator's efforts, warning that a failure to reduce the fatality rate and continually improve the sport's welfare record would jeopardise racing's future.
"Those who work in racing know that it can be very, very proud of the standard of care its participants receive," he said.
"We believe that all our horses are among the best-cared-for animals in the country. There's an element of risk, but it's a small risk. The sport brings life to far, far more animals than it takes away from, and the quality of those lives is astonishingly high.
"However, public attitudes to welfare are changing, which we're seeing playing out at parliamentary level, with all the main parties focusing on it, with the young generation, which expects different standards and has a different approach to [animal] life – and bear in mind they are our future customers, our future owners.
"The average age of a sole owner in racing is now 59 years old – at 51 that makes me a young owner. That has risen three years in the last ten years.
"We have to listen, we have to keep ahead of public opinion in the future, we have to keep control of the outcomes for our sport and we have to invest in future audiences. Part of that is addressing the needs of public opinion around welfare."
Rust added: "Welfare standards must be seen to be high, as well as being high. We have the strongest possible commitment to welfare in British racing.
"It is too important, too loved, too valuable, too different, too exciting, too much at the heart of British culture, and too important in too many people's lives for us to slip up by not putting the foot on the accelerator about looking after welfare, continuing to improve our high standards, going faster and being seen to go faster, so that the ball is kept at the feet of those involved in British racing."
That final footballing metaphor alluded to a recent parliamentary debate about the BHA's role as independent regulator, which saw frontbench ministers from both major parties demand improvements to racing's welfare record if it wants to remain entirely self-regulating.
"There is a real risk we might be in a position of having targets set for us," said Rust.
The BHA chief executive added that it was important the sport backed the regulator's welfare drive, both in spirit and with additional funding. He noted that The Horse Comes First, an initiative to promote the sport's welfare record, had funding of just £70,000 per year.
"We need everyone in the sport to buy in," said Rust. "I think in principle they do, but we still hear people say, 'This is just about explaining it better'. Well, of course we should explain things better. We should be rightly proud of the way our sport approaches welfare, but we also have to continue to make improvements to outcomes to back up that reputation.
"The Cheltenham review is just one piece of work, but it has far reaching implications for the future regulation and spirit of management of welfare in our sport.
"I strongly feel social licence and welfare for our sport are key factors to its future, because if young generations don't buy into the future of our sport, and we don't have a balance of positive people about our sport, we aren't going to thrive."
- Pre-race veterinary examinations will be increased to include all runners in all races at the festival, with a view to identifying any risk factors that might make it necessary to prevent a horse from running in a race
- Reduction in safety factor (maximum field size) in all two-mile chases run at the course from 24 to 20, with the race most likely to be affected by this being the Grand Annual Chase
- Race conditions of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle to be altered to remove all rider weight-claiming allowances, thereby incentivising connections to secure the services of the most experienced jockeys
- BHA to engage with participants to further identify factors that contribute to risk. This will include undertaking analysis of faller rates by trainer and jockey for Cheltenham and all jump racing and engaging with those who have an incidence of fallers significantly higher than the average, alongside a wide range of other relevant participants
- The industry must support a major research project to develop a predictive model for identifying risk factors for all jump racing, including horse history and performance, rider and training factors. Any risks arising from this significant work will be addressed and mitigated appropriately
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