Racing should be showcasing its wares but is now in damage-control mode
A photo of Gordon Elliott sitting on top of a dead racehorse on his County Meath gallops and subsequent statement has left horseracing’s relationship with the public in tatters, and betrayed the tireless work of so many people in the sport.
Racing has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as a result of gradual societal changes. Across Britain and beyond, many communities are less in touch with a rural mindset and unfamiliar with the agricultural lifestyle and concept of working with animals.
Recent changes to the Grand National and the Cheltenham Festival reflect racing’s constant quest to ensure the sport is as safe as possible for its participants and more attuned to the sensibilities of a modern audience.
The National has undergone numerous changes since the 2011 running (fences made easier and now 4m2½f from 4m4f), while last year the National Hunt Chase was run over 3m6f (shortened from 3m7½f in 2019 and 4m in 2018) and with two fewer fences jumped for the first time as a result of an investigation by the British Horseracing Authority, which also carried out a review of the entire meeting in 2018 as a result of seven equine fatalities.
Racing bore the brunt of a sustained backlash after 250,000 people attended last year’s Cheltenham Festival when it was accused of being a Covid-19 superspreader event, despite the fact it went ahead on government advice before the first lockdown was announced.
This year the festival was already set to be very different. Restrictions imposed due to the pandemic mean there will be no spectators, owners or amateur riders taking part, and press participation will be limited.
And more eyes than ever will be on our sport for its greatest week.
Despite taking place behind closed doors, the 2021 festival represented a unique opportunity for racing. With a large proportion of the country working from home and ITV – which has consistently recorded excellent viewing figures this jumps season – covering an extra race each day, the sport was gifted the chance to showcase the incredible animals and their stories to many more people.
Instead, we are already on the back foot because of a fleeting, foolish error of judgement by one of our most high-profile trainers.
Elliott’s actions and subsequent statement are impossible to defend, but his disgraceful antics have given those who wish to knock the sport a shocking piece of ammunition to throw back in our faces whenever we tell them how well treated and loved our horses are – including those at his very yard.
He has tarnished our sport’s reputation and insulted anyone who has ever defended racing from those who wish it would cease to exist.
The timing of this story is a nightmare, and would have been regardless of when it was released, but the industry has now been set a mammoth task to attempt to repair the damage it has caused with less than two weeks to go until the biggest event in our calendar.
Handicapped by unfairness
There was great anticipation last week as the entries for the Cheltenham Festival handicaps were released – yours truly was disappointed not to see Verdana Blue in the County – although the way it was done cannot be described as anything other than unsatisfactory.
The deadline for entries was on Tuesday, meaning those with access to a BHA account with certain privileges could see which horses were left in.
This led to a number of people leaking and then confirming requests from the racing community about which horses were in or out of particular races on social media before the entries were officially released and subsequently published by the Racing Post on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a number of bookmakers failed to take down their markets, meaning punters were in theory able to bet on horses who weren’t even entered in their respective races at the festival.
Above all, it is unfair and outdated that certain people have access to this betting-sensitive information as much as 24 hours before anyone else.
Understandably, Weatherbys has to confirm the entries before they are made public, but questions need to be asked about who has access and whether they are in a trusted position.
There also needs to be a tightening up of processes so the information is made public as soon as possible – it is in everyone’s interests to do so and would also make it a far more entertaining event.
1.50 Newbury, Saturday
This is more of an each-way fancy than a surefire winner, but do not overlook this ten-year-old if he turns up for Newbury’s feature. The Skelton team remain in red-hot form and this horse is now 4lb lower than his last winning mark. As a frequent bleeder he comes with risks attached, but good ground on a flat track enables him to produce his best – his effort at Cheltenham in January when he bled was creditable – and he has what it takes to be competitive off this mark.
2.30 Newbury, Saturday
This mare showed immense potential when winning a Listed novice hurdle by eight lengths at Taunton in December 2019 but hasn’t gone on from that whatsoever. She didn’t look a happy bunny when sent off favourite for a Listed handicap hurdle at this track on her reappearance in November, and again carried herself awkwardly throughout a Grade 2 at Doncaster last time. A mark of 138 looks steep and you cannot rely on her to produce her best at the moment.
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