Grand National deaths: racing’s PR veteran Rob Hartnett says racing is in the dock and the jury is not on our side

I invited a few ‘people who tweet’ to write guest articles on the Grand National debate.  A PR perspective from outside the industry, by Matt Taylor, was published yesterday.  Today, racing’s PR veteran, the much respected Rob Hartnett adds his point of view. Rob runs his own PR Consultancy in Dublin advising clients in betting and gaming, sport, the trade union sector, arts, education and new technology.  He was former PR and Sponsorship Director at the Tote and Managing Director at BETDAQ Racing.

Horseracing in the dock at the court of public opinion

The debate on the Grand National has brought to the fore a stark moral hazard which many in racing have always lived with but which poses a serious threat to the long term future of the race and the sport.

In Britain to a much greater extent than Ireland or most other countries, the debate around animal welfare owes a great deal to anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to horses in particular.  Owing in part to Mr Ed, Black Beauty or Champion the wonder horse, we who enjoy the sport do so because we fall victim in our hearts to the noble charm, bravery and courage of our favourite horses.

Whether it is Denman, Dawn Run or in my case, Buck House from the mid 1980’s, and Florida Pearl from a more recent decade, our heroic horses beguile and enchant us.  Seeing the last named in happy retirement at the National Stud makes me feel good about the care and attention lavished on those who race for our pleasure.

Do they race for their pleasure though, or are we asking them quite literally to race for their lives?  I am troubled over the way events have unfolded in the past 48 hours. To the general public, the sport of horse racing looks one in which animals are bred in  order to provide betting opportunities and forced to race over fences that expose them to far too great a risk.

The Grand National is the one day of the year that racing overcomes this and holds the nation’s attention.  Crowds flock to Aintree to eat, drink, be merry, drink a bit more, and be entertained.  Millions of workers, families, painters, plumbers, priests and pole dancers cut up their pieces of paper or shake their iPhones to generate a sweepstake that will give them the thrill of dipping a toe into the murky world of villains, vagabonds and bookies that they perceive racing to be and would normally shy away from in trepidation.

Of course the perception is wrong but Dick Francis has a lot more readers than Timeform and public perception is a powerful force.

The Grand National overcomes the general antipathy towards racing.  How many of today’s betting public and racing folk can date their love affair with the sport to the days of Red Rum and other heroes of the Grand National?  Without it the opportunity to thrill new followers will be lost.  That is why it is so important to heed what is being said.

Ten years ago public opinion was shaped by newspaper editors and broadcasting executives.  Today they still prime the national debate but now through new social media, they no longer control it.  If I was working for animal rights activists I would see the last two days as the beginning of my greatest opportunity to end once and for all the sport of racing, at least over fences.  Many have said that racing should sit tight and wait for the storm to blow over.  But this year’s race has left a stain, and to bundle it away without addressing the issues is to store up greater trouble in future.

On Saturday afternoon two horses died.  A young Jockey suffered a brain injury the extent of which is yet unknown but who has been shockingly overlooked as animal rights forced its way into the hearts and minds of a good proportion of the general public.

The most damaging aspect was that they died on the racecourse and for reasons of safety, forced two fences to be bypassed.  That the BBC chose to show a high level shot which forced their broken bodies centre stage is perhaps why their passing, more than any other equine deaths in recent years, is of such importance.

The general public will sanction wrongdoing by turning away when they don’t have to face it.  On Saturday, and just in case they missed it, in the ‘highlights’ programme in the small hours of Sunday morning, it could not be avoided.

Hence the debate from back pages to breakfast shows, Jeremy Vine and the One Show sofa.  All of it conducted by animal rights activists on one side, who knew exactly which strings to pull to win public empathy, and racing experts on the other who spoke of ‘acceptable risk’ and the notion that the horses have a good time and really enjoy their racing.  It was a one sided affair.

My children watched the race.  They cheered the winner and asked why the horses had to miss the fences.  I told them the horses were dead.  They asked did that happen often and I said no, that the horses were very well looked after from when they were born to when they retired and that as herd animals they naturally ran and jumped in the wild so racing was in their nature.  They were not sure.  They asked if a horse did not want to jump those big fences could they say no.  Sometimes it is from the mouths of children that we can glean the clearest picture of what the outside world thinks.

They were right to point out that these horses did not have a choice.

That argument is twisted though in suggesting people matter less because they can choose.  That is a cheap shot which should be knocked back by those who argue racing’s case.  All of us have crosses to bear in life.  We overcome hardships, setbacks and illness, knowing we will die in the end but content to soldier on because life itself is what makes it all worthwhile.

So it is with horses, most if not all of whom would never have lived were it not for racing.  The lives of countless thousands of horses have been enhanced by welfare programmes created out of a desire to breed sturdy animals.  Those who care for horses generally do so with genuine love and affection for them.

But this is immaterial in the court of public opinion and that is where racing will need soon and more frequently to present a cogent case for its continuance.  On Monday evening the British Horseracing Authority issued a robust defence of welfare provision in the sport and at the Grand National in particular.  It was strong but it was late.  It touched on the ethical question but did not address it.  That is the key issue for the future of racing.

To those who would argue that this will be quickly forgotten and the public interest will have moved on to talent shows and the Royal wedding within the beat of a butterfly’s wing, let me end on a medieval word of caution.

From the sixteenth century for three hundred years the sport of bear baiting was immensely popular throughout Britain.  Enjoying Royal patronage from Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I it attracted the masses until a point when the public conscience was ‘touched’ and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 was introduced, banning the practice which the public, through parliament had wearied of.

Steeplechasing as we know it, and after which of course this blog is named, is approximately 260 years old.

We know through the study of form that history teaches us much of what will happen in the future.  Racing should take heed and be prepared.

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