Key racing ally rejects call from Beckett and Johnston for Rust to resign
A key parliamentary ally of racing has rejected the suggestion from trainers Ralph Beckett and Mark Johnston that the BHA's chief executive Nick Rust should resign over the industry's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Laurence Robertson, Conservative MP for Tewkesbury and joint-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Racing & Bloodstock, said he believed the BHA had made "good and positive preparations to be ready to race" upon any easing of lockdown restrictions and the regulator was "doing a very good job in representing racing’s interests at this time".
His comments come in stark contrast to those of Beckett and Johnston who, in leaked emails sent to BHA chair Annamarie Phelps, called for the immediate removal of Rust, claiming his actions during a crisis that has led to the deaths of more than 20,000 people in hospitals in Britain have been self-serving and pandered to public perception over the wider good of the sport.
Beckett, who the report in the Sunday Telegraph claimed was backed by trainers including Andrew Balding and Richard Hannon, was also critical of a BHA press release on April 15 around the extension of racing's shutdown from the end of April to an unspecified date.
Hannon could not be reached for comment on Sunday while Balding referred inquiries for comment to the National Trainers Federation.
The trainers' actions threaten to cast the industry in a poor light and disrupt plans that are being drawn up to put the sport in as strong a possible position to resume next month having been shut down since March 18.
Last week, Rust said that racing was on a "knife-edge" in balancing the needs to restart the sport while not being out of step with the government and mood of the public.
In response to the trainers' comments, the BHA board said it was "fully and unequivocally" behind Rust, who announced in January he would be stepping down from his role at the end of the year, and Robertson was also supportive of the governing body's approach.
He said: "I don't accept the calls from some trainers that Nick Rust should bring forward his retirement because he is said to have failed to fully prepare for a return of horseracing. I reject that accusation.
"I believe the BHA has played and is playing this whole issue correctly. I am in favour of easing some of the lockdown restrictions, while not compromising people's health and safety, including with regard to sport. But racing should work along that curve and not be ahead of it.
"I believe the BHA has made good and positive preparations to be ready to race once the opportunity affords itself. I am in regular touch with the BHA and believe them to be in a good place."
He added: "I have every sympathy with trainers and with everyone whose livelihoods are being affected. But as someone who has not always agreed with the BHA, I believe them to be doing a very good job in representing racing's interests at this time."
Robertson's views were supported by his APP co-chair Conor McGinn, Labour MP for St Helens North, who said: “Racing has always had colourful individuals with strong opinions, but this is a time for everyone in the sport to pull together and act responsibly so we can get back up and running as soon and as safely as possible.
“The BHA’s job is to protect the interests, integrity and reputation of the entire sport, and look after its people and parts in all their diversity. I think that’s exactly what Nick Rust, his team and BHA members have done during these unprecedented and difficult circumstances.”
Rust received additional backing from Michael Dugher, the chief executive of the Betting And Gaming Council and former Labour MP, who wrote on Twitter: "Personally I think Nick Rust and the BHA have done a very good job. [It's] not easy.
"We all want to see racing back in some form ASAP. But he was 100 per cent right to say the priority has to be ensuring the sport didn't put pressure on the NHS. Others in racing need to live in the real world."
The BHA on Sunday said it continued to focus its efforts on "planning for the resumption of racing as soon as possible" and that "good progress" was being made towards presenting government with a plan for the sport, which is understood to be structured around similar behind-closed-doors models set to be implemented in France and Germany.
In a statement, it added: "The BHA board, which includes members nominated by the organisations representing horsemen and racecourses, understands the pressures on all in racing at present and recognises that BHA executives benefit from constructive feedback from participants. The board asks that to be done in accordance with racing's values, to be respectful and not single out individuals unfairly for carrying out their role.
"The racing industry, like everyone at this time, puts the health of the public and our participants first. This was clear in our decision to suspend racing and is a central focus of our planning for resumption.
"Nick, his team, and the industry colleagues with whom they are working so closely, are looking forward and are united in wanting the sport to resume as soon as it is possible. They have the board's full and unequivocal support."
'We want to be unified, not fighting'
The BHA's position was backed by the Professional Jockey Association (PJA), which wrote on Twitter that "collective decisions are being taken which equals collective responsibility. Blaming and bullying is the opposite of helpful", while PJA chairman Nigel Payne emphasised the importance of racing being united.
He said: "It's terribly important at this point in time that we are seen to have a unified industry. We are well ahead with plans for resumption of racing, and this is being led by the various BHA departments.
"From the PJA point of view we want to go back when it's right for the safety of our participants and when we're not taking away medics or ending up in hospitals. We want to be unified, not fighting. It's important we're seen to be sticking together and to distance ourselves from comments such as 'we don't care what the public thinks'."
According to the Sunday Telegraph, Beckett wrote to Phelps outlining his belief that Rust was not representative of racing following his decision to resign, and that "the widespread view is that the BHA is more concerned with public perception than its participants – this cannot continue."
Approached by the Racing Post for comment, Beckett said: "I have no comment to make on the article in the Sunday Telegraph. The focus is on my horses, their owners and, as a member of the BHA resumption of racing group, the return of racing."
Beckett's concerns were echoed by Johnston, and he said on Sunday: "My point is Nick Rust resigned in January. It doesn't matter if you're a journalist, a groom or the best CEO that there is, when you decide to go then you're usually better gone.
"No-one is suggesting that we flaunt government guidelines or we are beyond government guidelines or should be treated any differently, and we won't be. But Nick Rust and the BHA should not wait for someone within government to take responsibility for racing, and nobody should expect someone within government to take ultimate responsibility for the restarting of racing, or for our industry's concerns.
"We have to make our own plans to safeguard the future of our industry all within government guidelines. We are saying stop pussyfooting about and let's have a plan for the resumption of racing within those government guidelines."
Beckett is understood to have sent his initial email to Phelps in the days immediately after racing's shutdown was extended, and more detailed plans for the resumption of racing have been circulated to trainers since then.
In a statement, the National Trainers Federation called for the sport to unite behind these plans, and said: "With such a high degree of uncertainty for the nation and with livelihoods under threat, everyone has an opinion on the best way forward. Often they express it with passion and urgency.
"Since the emails referred to were written, racing's plan for resumption has been developed further through trust and collaboration. We have a good story to present to government, showing how our sport can be staged safely. We need to look forward and come together behind the plan."
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