Whip – a hotch-potch but the BHA had to act

Despite the emphasis on public opinion in today’s  BHA Review of whip use, racing would be a modern-day Canute in trying to turn the tide of public perception. Figures in today’s report showing how popular racing is (where did the 1 billion Global TV viewers a year come from?), fail to reflect reality – racing is way below the radar of  the vast majority of Britons – and it probably always will be.

Quantifying in this survey doesn’t real tell us much. What does ‘not very interested’ mean? They might watch the National and nothing else?

‘Fairly interested’? Maybe watch the National and Royal Ascot? Or perhaps they bet once a week/month – who knows?

The survey, around which much of the decision-making seems to have revolved, has several weaknesses beyond those mentioned above. The first objective mentioned in the Background heading is:

Clearly gauge the full spectrum of views on whether whipping is perceived to be cruel, in particular quantifying the extent to which people’s views differ depending on the situation

It’s impossible to get a full spectrum from a self-selecting group who have pre-registered, are internet savvy, possibly inclined to be opinionated about many things, and are probably notably different demographically from racing’s main funder the betting shop punter (how many of those are registered with YouGov?)

45% of respondents had no interest in racing – perhaps that balance was perceived as being necessary when seeking general public opinion, I don’t know.

I’ve slated the authorities often enough, but if the horror views of the corpses of Dooney’s Gate and Ornais were not sufficient,  when Jason Maguire jumped off an exhausted close-to-collapse winner, his whip still as hot as Ballabriggs, then many others dismounted to help a scurrying non-uniformed posse desperately hurl water on the ‘survivors’ of 4m 4f and 30 big fences in Mediterranean heat – watched by 9 million people – the BHA went 1.01 in my book to be forced into doing something dramatic. To have done nothing would have been the racing equivalent of the Murdochs ignoring the NOTW scandal.

The key for me was that, after the National, racing was close to losing the RSPCA – a terminal outcome if that happened, in my opinion.

We’ve ended up with a hotch-potch, no doubt, but it could never have been anything else. Public opinion, in reality, might mean little to racing, but it sure as hell means a lot to established animal welfare organisations.

The Grand National has changed many lives. The PR disaster that was the 2011 running has changed racing forever.

Maguire – whip should not be banned

Jason Maguire has spoken about the whip debate, claiming his ban after the Grand National was not the catalyst for the current whip review by the BHA.

“I did not go out to hurt Ballabriggs – we’re horsemen and we love horses,” he told the Yorkshire Post.

“I broke the rules and I got suspended for what I did. I accept that. It happened. But how would people have responded if I had not ridden the horse out – and got caught on the line? I would have been accused of not trying.

“There’s a lot of talk that the review has been pre-empted by my National ride. It has not. The National is just one race. We need to look at the whole sport. If you take sticks away, you will have horses refusing or pulling up before the final fence – particularly at a course like Towcester, with an uphill finish.

“Momentum is crucial to getting over an obstacle – and a jockey knows that the horse must come first. Would people be happy if there were races where no horse finished? You also need them for keeping a true course.”

Full article here

Cabinet Minister, sports secretary, Jeremy Hunt now calling for changes to the Grand National

I get the feeling that a concerted and lengthy campaign is steadily building on the welfare front for racing.  I’ll be expanding on these thoughts in another article but here is the latest development;  a significant one in my opinion.

The Northern Echo reports today that  Sports Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the public had been “shocked” by the gruesome sight of the horses – Dooney’s Gate and Ornais – which broke their backs in falls, in the Grand National.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHSA) ordered a review into whether safety should be tightened up at Liverpool’s Aintree Racecourse and will publish its findings in October.

But Mr Hunt appeared to pre-empt that review, when he said: “Racing is the second most popular sport in the country after football, in terms of attendances, It’s incredibly important.

“I think that what happened at the Grand National really shocked a lot of people. Anyone would say that we need to find a better way of making sure that those kind of tragedies don’t happen.”

The comments follow calls for Mr. Hunt’s department to intervene with the BHSA and Anita, to ensure measures are taken to make the famous race less lethal.

One Labour MP compared the treatment of horses in the Grand National to that of elephants in a circus, which were forced to “prance around on their back legs.” Twenty horses have been killed since 2000.

Full article here

Backhand position only for whip most likely outcome of BHA review says David Muir, RSPCA consultant

David Muir, the RSPCA consultant who works closely with racing on behalf of the charity, has been in the news lately.  David very kindly gave me twenty minutes of his time yesterday to record the following interview. 

“Recent media coverage seems to have given the impression that excessive whip use has suddenly become an issue because of the Grand National and Jason Maguire’s suspension.  The fact is the RSPCA and myself have been concerned about incorrect use of the whip in racing for a long time, and I have done a lot of work on the issue with a number of people.

“Although the RSPCA have always taken a pragmatic view on the whip, and indeed on racing, things are now getting out of hand.  Unless something is done about excessive use of the whip, I can see it being banned completely and that is something I don’t want to see.  The whip is needed for safety and discipline in races but how do you quantify encouragement?  That’s the area that needs addressing.

“I’ve read Mark Johnston’s piece where he says that horses need to feel the whip as they tire towards the finish, for their own safety, to keep them running straight in a balanced fashion.  To a degree Mark has a point but what you can’t do is defend the indefensible.  If the application of pain is a necessary ingredient for racing, then I see racing going into an area that’s problematic.

“The whip is a work in progress.  The one used now in racing bears no comparison whatever to the whip used five years ago. If I’d have hit myself hard on the back of the hand with a whip from five years ago, I’d break all four fingers.  I could do it with the current whip and not even leave a mark.

“The current whip has a cylindrical core covered with foam.  As it tapers down to the part which strikes the horse, it flattens out into a foam covered paddle which gives on contact with the horse and the reduction in pain, compared with the old whip, is dramatic.

“Used in the backhand style, the whip is perfectly acceptable, it’s when jockeys change to the forehand there is an implication that they want to apply as much pain as possible, and that’s where I fall out.

“We need to make sure that the correct balance is reached in whip design and in its use by jockeys. Doubling the foam-covering for example would make the whip useless for correction and discipline purposes.  But used in the backhand position, I can never see a point in the future where I, or the RSPCA, would have a problem with the whip and that is the way I think the BHA will go with this.

“The only alternative I can see to that is that the whip is to be carried for safety and correction only, as in the current hands and heels races.

“The whole point of me, and the RSPCA working side by side with racing is to try to help understand both sides of the issues as we work to improve the welfare of horses.  It’s alright standing outside and criticising racing but when you are working with racecourse management and the BHA, as we do, you see the problems they face.

“For example, I’m working closely at the moment on a hurdle design project with students at Southampton University, which is due to finish next month.  For a year we’ve been looking at hurdle design. Along with four graduates, we’ve been examining design to see if we can improve safety in hurdling and reduce fatalities.  I’m not in racing simply to criticise, I’m there to work with those involved to try to improve things”.

On the question of disqualification of a horse if its jockey is found guilty of improper use of the whip, David said:

“The Jockey should be disqualified, not the horse. Disqualifying the horse affects many other people; owners, trainers, punters, the whole system of betting.  Just imagine a jockey who wants to actually lose a race, he knows excessive use will get the horse disqualified”.

I asked David if he was involved in the decision to ask jockeys to dismount immediately after the Grand National.  He said:

“This is another issue that’s been taken completely out of context. I’ve been involved with the National now for fourteen years.  When I first went there I fought like billy-o to get loads of water and I’ve got it now, about a hundred buckets and big tanks full of water with ice-bags in them.

“When the horses come in after four and a half miles, they’re very hot.  Tim Morris (equine science and welfare director for the BHA) gave an instruction this year to jockeys to get off as soon they got in, get the saddles off and get water on the horses to cool them down. It wasn’t just the winner that got the treatment, I must have thrown water over twenty or thirty horses.  It’s a welfare issue and a good thing for racing to do”.

Asked about the image the hurried scrambling with water gave to the public, David said, “I think there was a major PA problem there.  They should have explained what was going on.  It’s a bit like when the screens go up on the course; everybody just assumes it’s a dead horse but that’s not always the case.

“Racing needs to take another step forward in explaining things.  The whip is a classic example.  Most people don’t know about the structure of a whip and how it behaves in use.  We need to be more open and help people understand things much better”.

We touched on the situation in Australia where the RSPCA were instrumental in getting NH racing  banned in all but two states.  David made the point that there’s almost no resemblance to jump racing there and in the UK, in the quality and type of horses used.  He said:

“I can never see a situation where the RSPCA would support a call for the banning of National Hunt racing in Britain. Remember, what we are about is the prevention of cruelty and the definition of cruelty is ‘the gratuitous application of pain for the enjoyment of the person who’s doing it’. Now where in racing does the term ‘cruel’ fit?  Tragic?  Yes. Cruel? I can’t see that. The RSPCA does not try to justify the deaths of racehorses, but we will work tirelessly to reduce them. It’s a high risk sport and the RSPCA’s position in it is to help make it as risk-free as possible”.

On Towcester’s decision to have only ‘hands and heels’ races from October 5th onwards David said, “It’s a brave and positive way forward and I congratulate them on their courage and tenacity in the face of these recent concerns about whip use”.

Grand National ‘cruelty complaints’ from BBC viewers more than 10 times higher than last year

The BBC press office confirmed today that, from a peak audience of 8.8 million, they received 313 complaints about the Grand National, up from just 29 complaints last year.

After the 2011 Grand National, complaints regarding animal cruelty were at their highest in 10 years, mostly directed at the coverage of the horse deaths. The breakdown:

161 about coverage of horse deaths
103 people felt the BBC should not cover GN
8 from viewers unhappy with whip usage

The BBC press office points out that the degree of  general media coverage after the Grand National might have played some part in the increase in the volume of compaints.

Here is the BBC’s response to viewer complaints about the coverage of the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s gate

We have received some complaints from viewers who are unhappy with how we covered the death of two horses during The Grand National on 9 April 2011.

In covering The Grand National, we have to strike a balance between covering the race as well as reflecting incidents that occur on the race track.

We reacted with as much care as possible given the very sad circumstances surrounding the death of the two horses.

We used the wide helicopter camera to cover any distressing scene as this provided the most distant angle available to us. We knew families with young children could be watching the race, so we tried to cover the deaths of the horses with as much sympathy as we could to ensure we minimised the distress this may cause our viewers.

Ultimately, our aim is to bring our audience the most comprehensive coverage of The Grand National; and we acknowledge that, when such sad events happen, it is hard to satisfy everyone with the manner in which they are covered

The breakdown of complaint categories from the BBC figures differs substantially from those reported by Channel 4 and the BHA where the main issue for complainers who contacted those organisations was whip use in the Grand National.  Full article here

The BBC also commented on another article I wrote prior to the Grand National regarding the effect of their coverage on the non-racing public.  Here is that article.

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Joe McNally


You bet. They Die. More than a week on from the National, Charlie Brooks reminds us of the dangers of ignorance

It’s a brave racing personality who raises the ghosts of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate when the national media have forgotten them. But I think Charlie Brooks is right to do so here in today’s  Telegraph.

It’s too easy for us to settle back down into daily racing life till Aintree comes along next year with the threat of dropping more Animal Aid parcels to those vehemently opposed to the National.

Other articles in this category  – 2011 post-Grand National debate – on my blog, tell the story of the continued campaigns in Australia to abolish NH racing completely (It’s now legal in only two states). Michael Lynch’s article gives an enlightening picture of the background to that campaign and it’s notable that the RSPCA down under helped get jumps racing stopped in many states.

How much longer the UK arm of that organisation can continue to ‘support’ the Grand National must be questionable. The Animal Aid devotees (their GN ‘merchandise’ includes T-shirts with the motto You bet. They Die), will have taken considerable heart from the public exposure they’ve received this time round.  If they have any nous, the RSPCA will be in their crosshairs.

Charity donations are tough to come by in these days of ‘austerity’; if an anti-RSPCA campaign orchestrated by Animal Aid starts affecting funds, racing had better look out.  Charlie Brooks touches on the whip issue too and the BHA’s position on the current rules will become untenable – it’s a matter of time and a subject for a separate article.

Joe McNally

All National jockeys pre-instructed to dismount at the end; we should have been told beforehand

Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare for the British Horseracing Authority writes to the Liverpool Echo. In his letter (in full, below) he tells readers: ” However, what viewers may not have seen is that due to the unseasonably warm weather, all the jockeys had been told to dismount from their horses as soon as the race was over in order to allow handlers and vets to get water to the horses”.

Had viewers been told beforehand, or the BBC briefed to build it into the coverage as water was being sloshed around everywhere at the end, it would have done two things:

Helped explain to the uninitiated what was happening and why

Given the message that detailed planning had gone into the organisation of the race

A vital PR opportunity missed.

Tim Morris’s letter

ALL those who love racing and horses will have been saddened by the accidents which led to the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate during the Grand National this year.

It was distressing for all of us to watch – those involved in racing care deeply for their horses.

This care and concern is why horseracing has for many years worked closely with legitimate animal welfare charities, such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. However, racing is a sport with risk, and the Grand National is the most testing race in Great Britain. Racing is open and transparent about this risk and works hard to reduce it. 

 TV viewers saw several welfare measures in action at this year’s race. For the first time, two fences were bypassed to minimise the risk of further accidents and run-outs were introduced so that those horses that had lost their riders could run around fences rather than jump them. Viewers will also have seen the winning jockey, Jason Maguire, jump off after the race and his horse, Ballabriggs, cooled with water. However, what viewers may not have seen is that due to the unseasonably warm weather, all the jockeys had been told to dismount from their horses as soon as the race was over in order to allow handlers and vets to get water to the horses

In addition, Mr Maguire was banned for five days for exceeding the strict limits which the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the sport’s regulator in Great Britain, places on the number of time he could use his whip. We will certainly be reviewing our rules to ensure that we have the balance right between appropriate use of the whip and stopping unacceptable use.

 Not everyone supports racing, and Animal Rights activists such as Animal Aid are entitled to their views. The BHA believes that the overwhelming majority of the British public do not subscribe to this view, and want to see racing continue.  We know the public also expects racing to do everything in its power to reduce risk to horses. The BHA is listening and is determined to ensure that this happens. 

Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare, British Horseracing Authority

Read More http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/views/echo-letters/2011/04/15/liverpool-echo-letters-april-15-2011-100252-28526579/#ixzz1Jad2r6o1