Bittar backs Rust but says BHA should focus less on those who don't like racing
Regulator's former chief executive expresses his view on the welfare debate
Former BHA chief executive Paul Bittar believes his successor Nick Rust will be able to reconcile the widening differences between the governing body and racing professionals over equine welfare issues, but thinks too much time is being spent trying to placate those who will never like racing.
Bittar feels the focus should be on celebrating the positives of a sport in "rude health", appealing to members of the public who are open-minded about racing's merits, and prioritising engagement with horsemen over welfare matters.
The BHA has come under fire in recent weeks, including in an explosive letter from trainer Mick Channon and former trainers Henrietta Knight and Charles Egerton sent to the Racing Post. The letter was extremely critical of the BHA and its chief executive Nick Rust, and accused the regulator of hiring too many Australians.
Bittar himself joined the BHA from Racing Victoria, and was born in Wagga Wagga. The BHA's current senior team includes chief regulatory officer Brant Dunshea, who replaced fellow Australian Jamie Stier, and director of equine health and welfare David Sykes.
Bittar's tenure as BHA chief executive lasted three years from 2012, during which time he dealt with some high-profile welfare issues. He implemented changes that put an end to unrest over the whip rules after severe penalties had generated outrage, and oversaw changes to the Grand National.
While not wishing to discuss remarks made by several people of late that the BHA has employed too many of his compatriots, Bittar did address the increasingly bitter row between some of racing's stakeholders.
"It feels like frustrations have been building up for a while, and it's frustration with the BHA’s approach to placate those who are either seeking to highlight the issues relating to welfare or actually bringing the sport down and disrupting it," said Bittar.
"Some people have perceived that the BHA see placating those who are against the sport as more important than looking after their own constituents and celebrating the success of the Cheltenham Festival," he said.
"A lot of people hold that view. As a result you've got this emerging chasm, with horsemen on one side and the BHA on the other."
The BHA's handling of equine welfare issues has been frequently in the spotlight recently, with Cheltenham another case in point.
In a statement at 7.50pm on the first day of the festival, the BHA said it was "extremely disappointed by the events in the National Hunt Chase", in which three riders were handed welfare-related bans.
The timing and wisdom of that public statement was widely questioned, as was Declan Lavery's ten-day ban for his ride on Jerrysback, who finished third.
Sir Anthony McCoy called that the "worst stewarding decision he had seen at Cheltenham in 25 years", and on Thursday it was overturned on appeal.
Bittar thinks that, rather than ending up with negative headlines and accusations of perceived pandering to an antagonistic minority, there should have been much more of a celebration of all that is right with the sport during four of its biggest days at Cheltenham.
He said: "British racing is very much about the horse, the emotional attachment to the horse, and this is certainly true of jumps racing. People feel the BHA’s focus is on welfare and those who are against the sport, and when that manifests itself in their biggest week of the year that’s when the frustration boils over. Horsemen expect the BHA to be more empathetic and supportive of them.
"British racing is in rude health – the events themselves, the numbers of people that go racing, the vibrancy of the on-course experience, people’s emotional attachment to the horse. There's no doubt it's in good shape."
Bittar, who now works for bookmaker Sportsbet, thinks racing would be better served by promoting a positive message around that, and targeting potential fans.
"In Britain, and on a larger global scale, a core part of the population love racing – but then there is a chunk of the population ambivalent about racing; they watch the Grand National and maybe a couple of other events and don’t really have any strong view," he said.
"There's a small part of the population against the sport for welfare reasons, and I think racing can get too focused on trying to change the minds of those people.
"Racing is better off spending its time looking after its customers, looking after stakeholders, and then trying to engage the chunk of the public that might be open-minded and trying to create a positive opportunity to engage them, as opposed to spending time trying to convince people who'll never be convinced by the merits of racing."
The BHA's statement in the wake of the National Hunt Chase and the Lavery ban were, perhaps, the straws that broke the camel's back as far as some racing professionals were concerned, coming after some other recent high-profile welfare and stewarding-related incidents.
McCoy had previously described as "embarrassing rubbish" the £140 fine given to trainer Henry Oliver for waving his arms at Burrenbridge Hotel before a race to encourage him to start, with a BHA statement defending the fine leaving trainer Nicky Henderson "in despair".
That statement had read: "We set a lot of store in our sport behind the fact we do not force horses to race and they do so of their own free will."
The BHA admitted subsequently: "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."
The BHA also backed down from forcing jumps horses to be shod behind as well as in front, with trainers believing they are better placed to make such decisions, while a 12-day ban dished out to Charlie Bennett at Kempton, which was quashed on appeal, was labelled "palpably wrong" by Professional Jockeys Association chief executive Paul Struthers.
He added: "This was a poor decision and deeply concerning coming so soon after the introduction of the BHA's new stewarding system."
Bittar believes Rust and his BHA colleagues will not ignore those who have vented their frustrations lately – Henry Daly, Ted Walsh and Derek O'Connor have also spoken out – and added: "I've no doubt the BHA will seek to address concerns horsemen have raised, and that Nick Rust, who's a smart operator, will find a way to bring key horseman into the loop of policy development and decision-making and engagement with government and others on key welfare issues."
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