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Horse racing looks to be in rude health despite flu outbreak

Ten observations on an extraordinary week of events

It was back to business for racing at Plumpton on Wednesday
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When this column last appeared, I said on the subject of a difficult start to the year for the BHA: “Let’s hope things settle down.” They certainly didn’t. Instead the regulator was thrust into a monumentally difficult and challenging situation sparked by the discovery of equine influenza at a British yard.

Here are ten reflections on the flu outbreak:

1 Everyone’s got an opinion. What’s yours worth?

Remember that slogan from one of the first bookmaker TV ads? I can’t recall which firm trotted out that particular line but it sprang to mind a few times over the past week when everyone was offering their view on whether the BHA was right to halt racing or should have ploughed on.

Most of the opinions were not worth much because this is a complex situation about which the vast majority of people are unqualified to comment with the remotest degree of authority.

And even those who did have sufficient knowledge to hold a credible view could not agree so, as someone whose view was worth pretty much nothing at all, I felt like the right approach by the BHA was to tread carefully and sacrifice a few days’ racing to ensure there was no risk of Cheltenham being disrupted, which is what happened.

2 Impatience impairs judgement

As the shutdown continued it was clear plenty of people were allowing their desire for a resumption to cloud their original opinion on whether or not cancelling meetings in the first place was the correct course of action.

There was a noticeable shift on Twitter from “yes, this is the right thing to do - better safe than sorry,” to “oh, just get on with it,” even though the process to collect sufficient evidence to support the best possible decision had yet to be completed.

3 New rule is a necessary nuisance

The stalls opened and the tapes rose again on Wednesday for the vast majority of stables. However, a new rule that requires vaccinations to have been carried out within six months rather than a year meant a small number of horses were unable to run.

The rule change was obviously brought in as a consequence of the extraordinary events of the previous week but some owners and trainers, rather than accept it as a necessary move to ensure racing could take place as soon as possible, instead lashed out in a way that suggested they would almost rather nobody was able to run their horses until they were able to.

It’s not as if trainers were not told less than three weeks ago by the BHA, when it first became apparent that flu was potentially about to do the rounds, that it was recommended for horses to have their vaccinations done twice a year.

4 A welcome break

This was not an episode devoid of benefits. While it was obviously a trying time for those racing professionals who operate dangerously close to the breadline, others for whom the relentless treadmill is a drain on their time and energy rather than their bank accounts were able to spend valuable time with their families and in a lot of cases get away for a change of scenery.

It is a shame that there is not an acceptance within the sport that jockeys and trainers should be able to enjoy time off to recharge their batteries by not accepting rides or making entries without feeling they will suffer as a result.

5 Punters missed racing

At a time when it is easy to fear most people who enter betting shops are quite happy to feast on FOBTs, football and virtuals, it was pleasing to read about punters and bookmakers expressing their dismay that there was no racing.

Whatever opportunities the flashing lights and pixels offer, racing is still the elite betting medium and long may that last.

6 Snapping the habit?

As someone who bets on racing roughly 359 days of the year it was odd not to be able to all of a sudden, but by Tuesday I had started to get accustomed to not checking out the day’s cards. Hopefully others were as eager as me to get stuck in again but an interesting study about changes of habit came to mind.

When there was a two-day transport strike in London a few years ago many thousands of passenger journeys were mapped using Oyster cards to see how they coped with having to take new routes to and from work. It was found that once services resumed around five per cent of people continued to use the alternative journey they had been forced to discover.

It is to be hoped fewer punters, having had a spell when they could not bet on racing, suddenly discovered they could either bet on other things or do without a punt completely because racing’s income, already about to be smashed up by the new FOBT restrictions, can ill-afford another dent.

7 The timing could have been worse

There is no perfect time for something like this to happen, but assuming this situation is as manageable as is currently believed, there are many worse periods when the flu virus could have paid a visit.

Losing Newbury was a blow, but the establishment of effective restaging processes means the meaningful action we missed last Saturday will take place on a sensational card at Ascot seven days later and come Cheltenham the six-day stoppage will hopefully not be a valid excuse for beaten horses.

8 Words fail me

Pleasing though it was to sense a general acceptance that the BHA had made the right decisions in difficult circumstances, not everyone was able to avoid losing their heads.

One trainer, who I will not embarrass by name, complained that he had received “not so much as a polite thank you” from the BHA for submitting his horses’ swabs for analysis at the Animal Health Trust laboratory.

He further illustrated his point with the charming hashtag #wtf. It is difficult to know where to start with this one, apart from to say it is the neediest thing I have heard since Yaya Toure threatened to leave Manchester City because they did not send him a birthday cake.

The AHT staff were working, literally, 24/7 to process a year’s samples in just a week and yet one trainer thought they should have broken off from this hugely important task to send him not just any old thank you but a polite thank you for sending his swabs in so they could find out whether his horses had the flu.

What else did he want exactly? A gold star? Some After-Eight mints? Proof again that, while the majority of trainers are fine folk, there are some with a truly world-class sense of entitlement.

9 Owners lose out

Horses were not able to race for six days but they still needed feeding and looking after, and footing the bill for that, without the chance to offset their outlay by winning some prize-money, were the long-suffering owners. Their patience and understanding deserve far more recognition than they receive.

10 Racing is still a big deal

It would be nice if racing could penetrate the mainstream news agenda due to some great racing has taken place rather than because no racing has taken place, but it was still heartening to see how much interest the sudden cancellation of nearly a week of fixtures created.

Here’s hoping the events of the past week mean we will be fine to enjoy Cheltenham, Aintree, Too Darn Hot and the rest of the spring action and that racing gets plenty more mentions for all the right reasons from the same organisations that have taken such a keen interest in this huge story over the past week.

Commentary-free coverage would get a roar of approval

Subscribing to Sky and BT in order to watch football is expensive enough, but if the companies want to extract even more from this customer at least they should introduce an option that allows us to hear the atmosphere inside the ground but not the commentator or his sidekick.

There are plenty of commentary pairings I am glad to listen to thanks to their unobtrusive narration of the action and the insight they add.

But there are others who are simply noise pollutants, who bring nothing to the broadcast except a pointless power to irritate, and if you had the misfortune to be sitting next to them in the stands you would either look around for alternative seats or suddenly burst into tears of despair and plead with them to shut up.

I try watching in silence at times but it is not the same without the sound of the crowd, not least because an increased roar alerts you of the need to look up from your phone.

I conducted a Twitter poll testing the appetite for a crowd-only facility and this is how the 952 respondents voted when asked how frequently they would use it: 22 per cent went for often, 22 for sometimes, another 22 for occasionally and 35 per cent opted for never.

So while never was the most popular choice, what I took out of it was that nearly two-thirds of people would use a commentary-free feed at least occasionally, and that strikes me as reason enough for the TV companies to crack on and make it happen.

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Here’s hoping the events of the past week mean we will be fine to enjoy Cheltenham, Aintree, Too Darn Hot and the rest of the spring action
E.W. Terms
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