Racing's image is important but reactionary approach is wrong
Racing and betting are undergoing one of their periodic meteor showers of damaging publicity. Like the grouse on August 12 we are suddenly there to be shot at.
There are three principal sources of ammunition helping to load the guns.
Firstly the £7.8 million fine imposed by the Gambling Commission on online firm 888 for failing to "protect vulnerable customers," then Davy Russell's punch to the head of a recalcitrant horse – exacerbated by the Turf Club's rank ineptitude in dealing with it – and finally the huge mine floating in the harbour that is the Fobt issue.
The 'record' fine on 888 would have generated much less publicity were it not for news editors and columnists finding themselves a cause in protecting problem gamblers, the young particularly, who are seen as victims of Fobts and their capacity to empty pockets at an alarming rate.
The Russell incident is grist to the mill of animal welfare groups who have long been fighting a guerrilla war against racing. It was a stupid act, but let's not pretend that the same thing or worse does not occur in scores of racing yards every day.
Not all horses answer to the description 'oh he's a christian at home, you could put your toddler up on him.'
Such horses exist but plenty are big, ignorant yokes who like nothing better than a chunk of arm belonging to their groom for a mid-morning snack and can kick the eye out of a fly at three paces. Put your toddler up on one of these and he or she will be off to nursery school via A&E.
Common sense and some antennae for how the public would react should have made the Turf Club hand out a suspension to Russell, who did something both wrong and irresponsible but who can hardly be branded wicked as a result.
A scratch poll in the Racing Post revealed the majority of our readers were shocked by Russell's action, so we can assume the wider public with no interest or understanding of the sport would be up in arms to a far greater degree.
But what slightly frightens me is the relish, glee even, with which responsible news outlets are battening on to the Fobt problem.
There is cross-party support for drastically reducing the maximum stakes, and newspapers of vastly different political stripe, usually at daggers drawn, are united in their opprobrium for the machines.
If the maximum stake is savaged there is potential for some massive financial unravelling of the betting industry with knock-on effects on the racing industry, primarily in the form of reduced income through reduced media rights revenue.
The Treasury did not want to lose its chunky tax take from the profits Fobts generate for bookies but it seems to have backpedalled in the teeth of media criticism.
And let's face it, headlines saying bookmakers have suffered a crunching financial reverse will sell not a single box of tissues with which the nation can dry its tears.
We often fail to realise that for all our success as an industry and the vast number who are employed in it, many of what used to be known as 'the man on the Clapham omnibus' have an instinctive, if largely hidden, hostility to racing.
They certainly see it as exclusive and something exclusive by definition excludes people – Joe Public.
So when a newspaper decides it has a stick with which to beat racing they can do so with confidence – and a touch of moral superiority – because it knows its stance will be popular with its readers.
Let us take the Grand National as an example. What many sports editors want is some sort of disaster, preferably of sufficient magnitude to haul the race on to the front page. Happily, they have had thin pickings in recent seasons but the assassins are still lurking in the alley.
Sometimes there are examples of the more perceptive folk in racing having an awareness of public resentment of the sport and the amounts of money they believe to be sloshing around within it.
When the financial crash of 2008 hit Ireland, the Celtic Tiger lost its claws almost overnight and was reduced to the Celtic tabby cat. One result was that a number of big Irish owners, sensing a possible backlash towards those still spending huge money on horses, suddenly dropped under the radar.
They still owned horses but often not in their name and sale-toppers became for an 'existing client' rather than name the man who had bought it.
Amazingly, bloodstock prices largely held, as they seem to through every economic downturn. When Noah brought the animals in two by two the only other thing that stayed afloat on god's earth was the bloodstock market.
But those big Irish jump owners read the runes wisely.
I'm not suggesting racing is universally unpopular or is short of manifold attractions. But out there are plenty of folk who would require little encouragement to turn against us and slide the stiletto between our ribs.
The sport has kowtowed to public opinion too much, but at the moment our public image requires a 24-hour guard and will do for months to come.
Hope springs eternal at annual open days
To the list of life's abiding certainties – death, taxes and nurses – at this time of year we can add the burgeoning phenomenon of owners' days.
The first five pages of Monday's Racing Post carried reports from shindigs at the yards of Paul Nicholls, Jonjo O'Neill, Noel Meade and Jamie Snowden.
My doctor would advise against going to Noel's knees-up as his conviviality and hospitality are the stuff of legend, and it would be no surprise if Sunday's do goes on until the Open meeting.
Nicholls stages a cracking do for a huge number. Sadly, he had to cancel the parade of horses owing to slippery conditions but this did not affect all his guests. Call me ungrateful, but once you have seen one parade of 80 horses you have seen them all.
Veterans of owners' days know how to time their run, with lunch the main target. Indeed my journey was such a pain in the proverbial that I sent Paul a text saying: "I'll be there for the bumper."
It rains food and snows drink at Ditcheat and as a non-owner I felt a twinge of guilt as nearly everyone else was paying more than £20,000 for their meal in training fees, while certain freeloaders do not part with so much as a sou.
What all owners' days have in common is the astonishing bullishness of the trainers and their scripts seem to have been written by the same author suffering from an advanced case of over-optimism.
Now, no trainer is going to stand up and say: "This season's horses are the most horrendous bunch of yaks, tortoises and crooked rabbits it has ever been my misfortune to see. I almost feel guilty asking for money to train them. Almost."
So Paul said: "I have a yard full of lovely young horses." Noel confessed to "a great bunch of horses to go to war with this season." Jamie Snowden's stable seems crammed with talent that will win everything up to and including the next general election, while Jonjo catalogued all sorts of potential superstars, before adding: "I love this time of the season."
All trainers do. It is because nothing has had time to go wrong. Nothing has a leg (yet), the head man has not disappeared with the girl on the tobacco counter at Tesco, and so far 20 horses have yet to acquire snotty noses with both nostrils running like the Tigris and Euphrates.
All those joys are to come. And come they will.
All lifestyle advice is rubbish. Drinking pints of wombat's bottom and chrysanthemum tea will not add 20 years to your life or render your raddled complexion a translucent thing of youthful beauty.
One of Saturday's newspapers told me I should reboot my relationships. I would prefer to go on sticking my foot in them, as in the past.
As for 'feeding the soul', just don't. The recommendation is to eat adaptogenic herbs (no me neither, not a clue) to give you a 'sunny disposition on autumn days.' Bilge.
One of these herbs – the everyday staple Ashwagandha – sounds interesting as in India it is known as “the strength of the stallion”.
My advice is not to try a Kayf Tara-size book of mares, even if you have rebooted and fed your soul.
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