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BHA backs down from 'free will' statement following more heavy criticism

Runners and riders line up at the start at Huntingdon on Friday
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After a barrage of criticism from racing professionals, the BHA on Tuesday admitted it had made a mistake in suggesting horses should only race of their own free will.

The authority conceded it had missed the mark in its justification for the decision to fine trainer Henry Oliver £140 for waving his arms at chaser Burrenbridge Hotel before a race to encourage the horse to start, blaming "the heat of the social media storm" for getting it wrong.

The BHA said it had not taken a new "philosophical stance" to racing and had over-emphasised the link between the incident and the need to manage welfare. However, it defended the decision of Uttoxeter's stewards on Saturday to sanction Oliver, who has declined to appeal.

Trainers Nicky Henderson and Alan King, along with Sir Anthony McCoy, led criticism of the decision to fine Oliver and the reasoning behind it.

A statement tweeted by the BHA on Sunday said: "We set a lot of store in our sport behind the fact that we do not force horses to race and that they do so of their own free will."

However, on Tuesday a BHA statement said: "In the heat of the social media storm, we put too much emphasis on linking the incident to the need to manage welfare, given the current context.

"The term 'free will', with hindsight, wasn't the right way to put this message across and should not be taken as evidence of a new 'philosophical stance' towards horses. We're happy to make that clear and accept the criticism that we shouldn't have used this phrase."

Oliver was found guilty of misconduct "in that he had encouraged Burrenbridge Hotel, which had been reluctant to line up, by waving his arms behind the gelding".

Tuesday's BHA statement said: "This rule is in place to ensure there are no inappropriate actions taken by trainers or their representatives which would either give an advantage to a runner or disadvantage other runners. Fundamentally, the rule is intended to ensure a fair start.

"At Uttoxeter, the stewards examined a potential breach of the rule and reached a decision with regard to Henry Oliver's actions. It's a 'refereeing decision' and such decisions in our sport and others are frequently disputed. This is why we have a simple, accessible and independent appeal process."

King had on Tuesday joined the chorus of disapproval against the BHA, saying the governing body was in danger of becoming a laughing stock. 

King said: "If I ran my business as badly as the BHA runs theirs I wouldn't have an owner left.

"This idea of horses having to run of their free will is a nonsense – as Nicky Henderson said, are they going to have to walk into the stalls without any handlers now?

"Think back to the Breeders' Cup when Wild Illusion wasn't going to go anywhere near the stalls. She was given one little flick with a long tom and walked straight in – a great example of proper horsemanship.

Alan King: described episode as a farce

"This is just the latest farce from the BHA, who rushed the shoeing edict in without discussing it and then had to put it on hold, and it appears that common sense has gone completely out of the window. I can't think of any other governing body that gets things so badly wrong.

"They're becoming a laughing stock and they're driving me and many others to despair. We're getting fed up of being dictated to by people who seem to have no understanding of the horse."

Renowned equine behaviourist Gary Witheford, who has worked for more than 35 years with problem horses including 2,000 Guineas, Derby, Eclipse and Arc winner Sea The Stars and top miler Kingman, had also voiced concern over the BHA's reasoning for the fine.

He said: "Horses are herd animals in the wild and need leaders. For example, you see them in the wild following a mare to the cleanest watering holes. Racehorses look to us humans for their leadership."

Witheford could not understand why the BHA has taken some recent decisions, including its insistence on the complete shoeing of horses, seemingly without consulting racing professionals.

He said: "They have been very patronising, like a head teacher talking to schoolchildren, but they are talking to professional people who know and love horses, when they are not professional people themselves.

"It's crazy – where will it all end? Will they only be happy when there are empty starting stalls?

Gary Witheford: "Nobody is working on things together"

"It is very sad and there is a lack of common sense being shown and nobody is working on things together. I think they are making a laughing stock of the BHA with the things they are coming up with."

Witheford, who works with horses through all parts of their racing education, is often at the start of races helping load horses he has worked with to overcome problems.

"Every day at home I will be waving my hands to get a horse into its box," he said. "Horses are fight-or-flight animals and you are trying to get it to move to flight."

Read what Tony McCoy and Nicky Henderson had to say about Henry Oliver's fine here

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The term 'free will' wasn't the right way to put this message across and should not be taken as evidence of a new 'philosophical stance towards horses
E.W. Terms