Mascot Grand National hit by boycott
The Mascot Grand National, a race that pits sporting mascots against each other, has been marred by a bitter row that questions the event's very integrity and threatens to deal it a terminal blow.
It is an annual race that pits an array of furry dragons, giant farmyard animals, oversized birds, and fluffy poachers and pirates against one another.
For more than a decade the Mascot Grand National has been a keenly-contested fixture on the sporting calendar featuring representatives from football clubs across the country.
But this year's race, due to be held today, has been marred by a bitter row that questions the event's very integrity and threatens to deal it a terminal blow.
Dozens of competitors are boycotting the charity race because they believe it has been hijacked by "ringers". The renegade mascots are even considering picketing the event in protest.
They say it has moved too far away from its roots – as a contest between "professional" mascots who appear each week for football clubs – and has since been taken over by private companies, charities and other, minor, sports clubs looking to promote themselves.
They claim that many of the new competitors are not proper, full-time mascots but are often amateur sportsmen in little more than fancy dress who pose as mascots just for the day.
Many of them do not even bother to wear proper mascots' costume, opting instead for running shoes, lightweight tracksuits, and masks. Previous competitors have raced in outfits that are nothing more than football kits worn with tights and a mask.
This gives them a significant advantage over the "professional" mascots, who must lumber over the one furlong course – with six fences – in bulky foam suits, giant headgear and oversized feet.
The striking mascots – all from football league or established non-league clubs – even suspect that some of the "ringers" are placing bets on themselves to win.
Among those leading the walkout is Poacher the Imp, Lincoln City's mascot. Poacher, who also goes under the name Gary Hutchinson, a 31-year-old training adviser in the construction industry, has competed on nine occasions.
"The race has moved away from what it was set up to be, towards something where chancers think they can just come and win," he added.
In previous years, the event, held at Huntingdon Racecourse, in Cambridgeshire, has attracted around 80 competitors.
But Mr Hutchinson said around 40 football mascots were boycotting the event. He understands that only two from the football league, Pilgrim Pete, from Plymouth Argyle, and Peter Burrow, from Peterborough United, are due to compete.
The organisers confirmed that the field this year is restricted to just 41 runners and riders.
Mr Hutchinson added: "We are all sticking together. We have previously tried to set up the British Union for Mascots, but every club treats their mascots differently and we couldn't really bring a set of standards together.
"However, when it comes to certain principles, we all agree."
Sheffield United's Captain Blade, who declined to give another name, said: "The race is being taken over by ringers. You have got to tell these people to stop ruining it for us and get it back to what it was before – a load of blokes going down and earning money for charity, having a laugh and entertaining people."
The only conditions for taking part are that competitors must not be professional athletes and must wear a mascot's uniform. However, there are no precise rules governing what the costume constitutes.
Mascots with oversized feet are given a head start over the other competitors.
Concerns about the event among "professional" mascots have been growing for several years. The title has not been won by a representative from the Football League since 2003, when Chaddy the Owl, from Oldham Athletic, won.
More recent winners include Graham the Gorilla, from Finedon Volta, and Wacky Macky Bear, from Saffron Walden Town – both minor, amateur football clubs.
Other recent winners have included mascots from a rugby club, a charity and a newspaper.
Tensions have been growing in recent years between the "professional" mascots and other competitors.
One year, Captain Blade was involved in a clash with another mascot, in which the Sheffield United talisman waited half way down the course and obstructed the other racer as he went past.
Captain Blade also alleges that last year, two minders were assigned by the organisers to monitor him.
Crisis talks between the mascots and the organisers in recent days have failed to avert the walkout. Sophie Hodgkinson, managing director of Huntingdon racecourse, said it was too late to change the plans to accommodate the complaining mascots.
"Over the years, more and more mascots have been getting involved and a number of the football ones would prefer it to involve those who are mascots, day in day out.
We've been in talks with them but a number will not be racing this year. The key goal for us is a fun event that raises as much money as possible for charity."
She denied minders had been assigned to keep an eye on Captain Blade.
"He likes to have a little bit of fun and knock a few people over," she added. "We were looking to try to start the race and I think it was just a case of stewards requesting he move to the start so we could do so."
Ms Hodgkinson said that after this year's race, the whole event would be reviewed and that a second race – for professional mascots only – could be staged next year.
The review will also examine whether to stop competitors placing bets on themselves, although Ms Hodgkinson said she had no evidence this had ever happened.
Today's race is raising money for the Paralympics. The prize for the winner is a trophy and a year's free supply of pizza, provided by the race sponsor.
The boycott is not the first controversy in the world of football mascots.
Previously, there have been concerns over their behaviour at matches. One season Bury's Robbie the Bobby was sent off three times, while Cyril the Swan, from Swansea City, received a £1,000 (€1,150) fine for a pitch invasion.
On another occasion he also ripped the head off Millwall's Zampa the Lion and drop-kicked it into the crowd, while Wolverhampton Wanderers' mascot Wolfie once started a fight with all three of Bristol City's pigs.