Is the RSPCA ready to leave racing and can racing prosper without them?

Paul Bittar

Thirty four days into his new job as Chief Executive of the BHA, Paul Bittar made his mark today as the BHA board approved an amendment to the whip rules, the third and most significant change to these rules since their introduction on October 10th 2011.

The BHA review which resulted in the ‘new’ whip rules, took almost a year and, one would imagine, significant resources. When the review was published Paul Roy, Chairman of the British Horseracing Authority, said:

“This has been an incredibly wide-ranging piece of work, resulting in a comprehensive Review that the Authority is very proud of. The Board approved every one of the recommendations and the message is loud and clear – we will continue to lead the way in responsible regulation and will make difficult decisions in the best interests of the sport and its participants.

Today’s decision by the BHA effectively neutered the rigid objectives of the original review and, by implication discredited its authors. I wonder what Jamie Stier,  Director of Raceday Operations and Regulation, and Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare – key figures in championing the original review – had to say for themselves at today’s meeting.

When the review was published, Tim Morris said:  “Use of the whip is, understandably, a sensitive issue. Safeguarding the welfare of racehorses is a priority for the Authority and we are committed to ensuring and enhancing horse welfare, taking an approach backed strongly by current animal welfare science. The thoroughness of this Review, and the conclusions it reaches, are yet further demonstrations of this commitment.”

The key animal welfare groups were consulted during the review but prior to the latest changes, no contact was made with the RSPCA other than to inform them the review was taking place.  This looks to me like a deliberate snub by Paul Bittar with the intention of showing the RSPCA who is boss, a stance I believe he might regret.

Just to clarify my position – I am not a partisan defender of the RSPCA or of the October 10th whip rules.

My view on the whip rules was that they could never be seen to be fair unless some form of ‘force index’ was also taken into account. For example, 8 full-blooded whacks might be considered within the limits while 16 rhythmic ‘flicks’ might earn a lengthy suspension.

Perhaps some form of ‘force index’ consideration is what the BHA now seeks from stewards:

“While well intentioned, and in accordance with initial requests from the jockeys for clarity and consistency via a fixed number, in practice the new rules have repeatedly thrown up examples of no consideration being given to the manner in which the whip is used as well as riders being awarded disproportionate penalties for the offence committed.” (Extract from today’s BHA statement).

A number of people in racing believe the RSPCA has had too much influence on the whip rules. David Muir, the RSPCA’s racing consultant has never left me in any doubt that the welfare of the horse is his sole concern. He comes across as having no personal axe to grind nor any appetite for grandstanding. Indeed, I understand that a number of influential people within the RSPCA believe the organisation should not be associated with racing, a stance Mr Muir has vigorously opposed.

Mr Muir has been working on trying to make hurdles safer and, also, on further changes to whip design which could, in the long term, include a microchip which measures force as well as frequency. He argued for years that cooling off facilities for horses should be made available at the end of the Grand National. The introduction of the new whip rules last October were a major boost for Mr Muir;  apart from the personal satisfaction of seeing horse welfare improved, it made his on-going battle to keep the RSPCA ‘on racing’s side’ much easier. Mr Muir sent me a fiery response to today’s changes which I now understand was written by ‘the RSPCA press office’ and not Mr Muir himself.  The heated language shows how difficult that internal political battle to keep the RSPCA committed to racing will now be.

Tonight David Muir told me: “I will monitor the results  of the changes and if they impact negatively on the welfare of the racehorse then I will seek that the BHA are held accountable for their actions, but likewise if they work well, I will hold my hand up and admit my error.”

Could racing survive without the RSPCA? Probably.  Could it prosper without them?  Perhaps not. By abandoning racing the RSPCA might, by implication, be seen to be condemning it. Their role is the prevention of cruelty to animals. When Animal Rights organisations, like Animal Aid, accuse racing of abusing and killing horses, who will the BHA ask to speak in its favour?

Without the legitimate advocacy of the RSPCA, groups like Animal Aid could attend every race meeting and demand that the police investigate their allegations of cruelty.

Without a balanced viewpoint from the RSPCA on radio phone-ins and media interviews, what sort of impact would AA and the like have on racing’s image?

Would race sponsors endorse a sport which the RSPCA had deserted? Would the BBC? Would racegoers?

Racing needs the RSPCA. I hope the BHA’s bold move today in shunning the RSPCA does not make David Muir’s defence of the racing industry to his employers untenable.

Joe McNally

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