Jump racing is getting its retaliation in first – to borrow a rugby phrase – on the more hostile pro-animal groups who say this week’s Cheltenham Festival will inflict cruelty on its 500 equine participants.
Paul Bittar, the British Horseracing Authority chief executive, says: “Nowhere in the world does care for the horse and the depth of interest in the horse exist as it does in England.”
Bittar, an Australian, has worked in four racing jurisdictions around the world and believes National Hunt racing in Britain needs to defend itself more vigorously. Last year five horses were killed on the first two days of the Festival and Synchronised, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, was one of two destroyed in the Grand National.
Most of the 220,000 or so racegoers who will attend four days of action in the Cotswolds are aficionados but Cheltenham is increasingly a forum for animal rights protesters.
“We’re keen to take a more positive approach to how we deal with the issues and not shy away or perhaps concede as much ground as people feel we may have conceded,” Bittar says. “Given the focus on both Cheltenham and Aintree and what they present for the sport as a window we should be proud.
“Last year wasn’t a great start to Cheltenham and it did put us on the back foot a bit. We’ve prepared as well as we could, in terms of people on the ground, our own organisation, work with the racecourses and modifications to the fences. To be honest now we need a little bit of luck.
“The Festival is now hugely popular, hugely successful, and the focus is such that if you’re going to run an anti campaign it presents a logical option.”
One deeper issue, which invokes the law of unintended consequences, is whether the softening of obstacles has increased the pace of races and therefore raised the speed and violence of falls. Another is the relative decline of the traditional National Hunt horse in favour of ex-Flat racers who are taking fences at a higher velocity.
Bittar, who has been in the job 12 months, insists changes to race conditions, course modifications and initiatives such as the new warm-down area at Aintree show a sport attuned to public sensitivities. He says: “I think we have to get the message across that this is a sport that’s not without risk.
“And we know from our customer research that people who attend the event don’t have a problem with equine welfare issues in the way of people who might pick up the paper and look at the issue two days later.” So is there an acceptable percentage of fatalities?
“There’s not a number. But part of [jump] racing’s appeal is that these are brave guys and brave horses involved in this sport. We work pretty closely with credible welfare organisations.” The provision of bone-friendly ground on racecourses is another primary issue.
“There’s no question there’s a correlation between the firmness of the track and potential injuries or fatality rates,” Bittar added. “The courses are very conscious of that.”
Another running sore has healed. Bittar is credited with solving the whips issue with modifications to the original stiff reforms of a year ago.
“We’re pretty happy now that it doesn’t dominate the media in any way, which is a barometer of how it’s working. It gave me an opportunity to bring the sport together and reach a logical outcome. We have the riders comfortable with it and the stewards making judgment calls and using their discretion, which they’re there to do every day on a whole host of things.
“The penalty structure didn’t fit the breach. It was too severe. At the same time we quickly recognised it’s not just the number of hits, it’s the manner in which the whip is used that’s the real issue. As a result of that we have the most strict whip rules in the world, yet we’ve been able to reduce the number of breaches by a third, while halving the number of strokes allowed.”