Racing should be doing all it can to assist wheelchair users
In the last few weeks I have been making some of my first trips to racecourses in my wheelchair and the reception I have had at the likes of Newmarket and York has been wonderful. Unfortunately, it seems not all wheelchair-using racegoers have had such a positive experience.
I was recently introduced to Mo Charge, who has been forced into a wheelchair in recent years by hereditary spastic paraplegia. Mo, 58, is the former owner of Sports Bookmakers, a passionate racing fan and has owned a number of horses down the years, including Greed Is Good, who I rode for him back in 2013.
Mo has reached out to the Racing Post after taking what he describes as the "heartbreaking" decision to give up owning horses, because he finds going to watch them run at many of Britain's racecourses too much hassle in his wheelchair.
Having been in his chair for longer than I have, Mo has experienced more than me but is already making me aware of certain things I may encounter as I visit more courses in the years to come and, unfortunately, he does not paint a pretty picture.
"As sporting venues go, horseracing is absolutely and utterly at the bottom of the pile," Mo told me, and two examples highlight some of the reasons for this.
Inaccessible viewing area
On a day out at Doncaster in 2013, Mo was originally frustrated by the disabled parking being on grass, something that makes pushing yourself along in your chair extremely difficult. Things did not improve once inside the course, with staff unable to point him in the direction of lifts he could use to access the disabled viewing area in the grandstand. Having worked out where that area was himself, he had to make his way through a restaurant, between tables of diners, to reach it.
"Why put it in such an inaccessible place?" Mo asks. "They've ticked the box saying there is a designated area but the practicality and reality of it wouldn't encourage anybody to go back there because of the embarrassment and annoyance factor."
Mo had another bad day when he went to Windsor to watch his Mystic And Artist run on June 22, 2015. A toilet marked as being for disabled racegoers turned out to be too small for Mo to wheel himself in and transfer on to the lavatory. "That really highlights the problem," said Mo. "Who on Earth thought of having a disabled toilet where you can't take in the wheelchair and sit on the lavatory?"
Asked to respond to both of these incidents, Arc's Sam Cone confirmed a lift that allows access to Doncaster's disabled viewing area without having to go through the restaurant has now been repaired, while at Windsor, he explained there are disabled toilets near the grandstand big enough to accommodate a motorised wheelchair. Cone also said all Arc courses have accessibility statements on their websites.
"We want to make sure wheelchair users are able to enjoy their experience at an Arc racecourse in line with all customers and we have, over the years, worked to make adjustments to facilities to help achieve this," Cone said. "That is not to say there is not room for improvement, however, and such considerations are high up the agenda of any new development or refurbishment of our racecourses.
"We are happy to receive feedback on this issue and listen to any concerns customers have to see if we can improve."
Better toilet facilities at all courses a must
The size of disabled toilets is not the only problem Mo has highlighted, with the lack of National Key Scheme (formerly Radar Key) facilities available at British courses a real issue.
The purpose of the NKS is to provide disabled people with public toilets they can trust will be available when they need them and will be in a usable condition. I have one of these keys and, as with so many issues like this, nobody can fully appreciate their significance until they have the misfortune of finding themselves in a wheelchair.
Mo is calling for every racecourse in Britain to be fitted with such toilets and this is something I am happy to support. He rightly said: "It's peanuts in terms of cost in the big scheme of things but it's a must."
Doncaster and Windsor are by no means the only two courses Mo has had problems with and nor are his issues confined to venues owned by Arc, but the bottom line is a valuable supporter of our sport has been all but forced away by the circumstances.
Will Aitkenhead of the Racecourse Association has expressed his disappointment at hearing of Mo's decision but said he welcomed the opportunity to look again at accessibility on racecourses.
Aitkenhead points out that all courses in Britain are assessed every year by Visit England, Visit Wales and Visit Scotland, with Goodwood and Aintree having undergone significant improvements in recent months, including the resurfacing of car parks at the former and modification of toilets at the latter.
He also notes a recent House of Commons report on accessibility of sports stadia openly criticised many sports but made no mention of horseracing, although he added: "That's not to say we are complacent and first-hand experiences such as Mo's are invaluable in helping us improve the raceday experience for disabled guests.
"We would very much welcome the opportunity to work with Mo and anybody else who felt they could help us improve accessibility on racecourses."
Arc and the RCA's openness is good to hear and hopefully things will continue to improve, but the fact is Mo will now visit only Huntingdon racecourse, where he has a box and where NKS toilets are available. That he feels the need to seek refuge in a box, as he did at many other courses in recent years, has to be a concern.
Such facilities come at considerably greater expense than a general admission ticket and it is wrong that a wheelchair user feels he cannot get the same experience from a day racing with a general admission ticket than an able-bodied visitor would.
If somebody like Mo, who eats, sleeps and drinks racing, feels he has no choice but to step away from ownership then the question has to be asked: how does racing expect to attract wheelchair users who do not have that emotional link to get involved?
Performance of the week
One of the horses I was most looking forward to this year was Tribute Act, having won on her on her only start last year at Kempton. I got off her that day and said she had a lot of potential, so it was great to see her build on her comeback run at Newmarket with a win at Kempton on Wednesday night. She showed a lovely turn of foot coming from off the pace and she is definitely a filly to keep an eye on this summer.
Luca Cumani's horses have been in good form of late and I think Vuela can build on her Doncaster win in the 5.35 at Sandown on Saturday. She showed a great attitude last time to come out on top in a driving finish and there appears to be no reason this step up in trip should pose any problems.