Animal rights as new BHA boss tells racing’s leaders in York to get on “the front foot” over welfare as political pressure grows

Threat won this year's Gimcrack Stakes at York under Oisin Murphy.
Threat won this year's Gimcrack Stakes at York under Oisin Murphy.
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Racing needs to get on “the front foot” over animal welfare if it is to maintain public confidence, the new head of British Horseracing Authority has warned.

In her first major policy speech since becoming chair of the BHA, Annamarie Phelps said racing needs to “be leading, not reacting to the conversation about the participation of horses in sport”.

There will be an unprecedented opportunity to promote racing, says BHA chair Annamarie Phelps, if Tiger Rol attempts to win an unprecedented third successive Grand National next year.

There will be an unprecedented opportunity to promote racing, says BHA chair Annamarie Phelps, if Tiger Rol attempts to win an unprecedented third successive Grand National next year.

A former chair of British Rowing, Phelps was one of the keynote speakers who addressed industry leaders at last night’s annual Gimcrack dinner at York racecourse.

Her comments precede the launch of a new Horse Welfare Strategy in the New Year and calls from trainers for a National Racehorse Day to be staged to challenge miconceptions about the sport and treatment of equine participants.

Labour has promised an independent review into the continued use of the whip if Jeremy Corbyn wins tomorrow’s general election.

“Let me tell you how I think it looks from outside the sport,” Phelps told the gathering at York.

If racing wants to retain self regulation, it will need to show, in my view, greater external scrutiny of horse welfare standards.

Annamarie Phelps

“First, the sport’s right to regulate itself on horse welfare has been challenged by two of the main UK parties in this election ‐ with one focused on the issue of the whip.

“Whoever wins or loses, this challenge isn’t going away. If racing wants to retain self regulation, it will need to show, in my view, greater external scrutiny of horse welfare standards.

“If racing doesn’t ensure this, it may be forced upon us. I believe the horse welfare strategy will show the BHA as regulator, and our industry have adopted a more collaborative approach.”

She went on: “It’s a delicate balance to strike but the BHA is well-respected in government and across sport integrity circles.

“As well as being the independent regulator, the BHA also leads engagement with government, answering to and collaborating with, a public affairs group of industry representatives.

“I know that racing has a strong and effective approach dealing with government. I’ve seen other sports. Few are as well organised.

“But we can’t expect lobbying alone to win the day. You will have seen what a prominent role animal welfare has taken in this election campaign.

“It’s popular with voters, especially activists. We need to build up positive support in an equally active way amongst the public, equipping people with the information they need to have confidence in the welfare provided to our horses.”

Phelps also used her speech to challenge racing leaders to respond to changing public opinion if it is to attract a new generation of racegoers and build a sustainable financial future.

“If we want to change people’s attitudes and win over those who are neutral about racing – at the very least ensure they are not won over by our critics, we need to be doing something different. But doing different is not always comfortable or easy,” she set out.

“This is an opportunity to get on the front foot – demonstrating that the power of racing is matched by the responsibility we take for our horses.

“So I hope anything we say publicly will make people feel positive about racing. I want people to be coming to racing for the first time and to be so excited by what they see that they are natural advocates for it.

“We all have a part to play. Some of us focus on government, some talk to the customers who turn up on raceday for a great family day out, some appear in the media talking brilliantly about the horse they prepared for victory or the ride they’ve ridden.

“Our trainers and jockeys in particular have an enormous public-facing opportunity to talk in a truly authentic way about how important our horses are to us.

“We won’t get a better opportunity than the Grand National this year, if Tiger Roll goes for a hat-trick.”