Credit to Lee Mottershead and Kevin Blake for recent articles on the plight of stable staff in the UK and Ireland. Last week was Stable Staff week, an initiative backed by Racing Welfare, a charity dedicated to raising money to support racing’s workforce, and Betfair, (not a charity) dedicated to raising money for its shareholders.
Google does not reveal who came up with the idea for Stable Staff week, but the originator is entitled to the benefit of my doubt. I dislike seeing year-round issues being ‘highlighted’ by a special day or week. Even if it is meant to raise awareness, too often it becomes an opportunity for conscience-salving that’s restricted on a midnight to midnight basis. “I put a fiver in the tin.” “I retweeted that plea.” “I wrote an article.”
And the whole concept, at industry level, is founded on a disingenuous premise: “Stable staff are the backbone of the industry.” “Our staff are our greatest asset.” “We value the commitment and dedication of our staff.” Er, no you don’t, or they’d be better paid, have more days off and fewer horses to do. What you really value is the capacity for a thoroughbred to enchant the human spirit; to give a boy or girl something to cling to, to dream of, to take meaning from and some hope. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a trade-off, and one that enough lads are still willing to accept. Lads who, I suspect, would rather the industry acknowledged this than dress it up in corporate speak.
But where something extra can be done, perhaps it should be, especially by racecourses. Lee and Kevin mention in their articles how tracks treat staff with regard to recognition of achievements. Some tracks treat stable staff superbly. Most tracks behave shamefully in discriminating between the professionals who work on course.
Lee’s piece, and Kevin’s are the only ones I can find which cover Stable Staff week. Perhaps it got a mention on Channel 4, I don’t know. It’s not a particularly sexy thing to campaign on and sports editors aren’t renowned for dedicating space to such causes. Still, online journalism beats newsprint on space. Column inches are unrestricted so long as you can hold the reader’s attention. But campaigning comes with responsibilities other than writing a column. The racing press, what remains of it, gets better treatment from racecourses than jockeys do, than stable staff do.
The press have a dedicated room which is, at the very least, normally warm and dry. The press badge allows free entry. The track executive provides free food and drink in most cases. The posh word is ‘complimentary’. The compliments are thinly veiled bribes to the people who write about racing, the people with a voice. “Complimentary” swings shut with the hinges of the press room door. With the exception of a handful of tracks, complimentary is not a word you will find in a stable staff canteen or even a jockeys’ changing room.
Again, campaigning comes with responsibilities beyond a dozen paragraphs once a year. Campaigners could perhaps end each racing report every day with something like this: “Free food and drink was available to the press but your correspondent declined both as the racecourse did not make the same offer to stable staff.” I’m sure their colleagues in the press room would show solidarity. Perhaps they could even make it known to the track in advance…you never know from where a conscience might suddenly reveal itself after so many years.
The BBC’s coverage of the John Smith’s Grand National has become much more of a ‘people’s event’ over the past few years. The corporation does a fine job of informing and entertaining; a tough recipe to get right given the mix of highly knowledgeable fans and the once-a-year punters who form the vast majority.
Given racing’s ambitions to attract more people to the sport, I suspect that the BBC’s post-race analysis does those ambitions no favours.
Big broadcasters are pretty damn proud of the power of their software, and editors seem especially keen to highlight the ‘benefits’ of super-slow-motion. Somersaulting horses, spilling brightly-silked jockeys across the Liverpool turf, is, I admit, very hard to resist from a drama viewpoint. And no doubt many watch these shock and awe slowmo re-runs with that fascination that compels human beings to ‘rubber-neck’ at road accidents and street fights.
But, when the credits roll, how many once-a-year fans will be left with the impression that this is a fine sport at which to spend a day out? Not a lot, I suspect.
Maybe the BHA has some figures. Is there any noticeable upsurge in racecourse attendances in the weeks after the National? Have surveys ever been done to test the effect Grand National coverage has on the image of the sport in general?
I accept that people want to know ‘where your money went’. But couldn’t the BBC utilise its brilliant technology in creating an entertaining virtual re-run offering a much ‘softer’ summary of where horses left the race? Keep the live footage for all the best bits of the race and show them as often, and from as many angles as you like, but please, BBC, stop concentrating on replays of fallers.
Show them once, if you must, at normal speed. Frustrating as this might be to your ‘creatives’, you’d be doing the racing industry a considerable service.
Thoroughbreds are nervous creatures. Many are calm around the familiarity of the yard but start fretting as soon as the horsebox ramp is lowered. At the centre of attention in the parade ring, PA announcements ringing out, music sometimes blaring from ‘on-course entertainers’, highly strung horses can get into a lather, physically and mentally.
You need only stand by the paddock rail to see ears flicking, eyes rolling and jittery movements (and, as the old one goes, the horses are just as bad).
At the 2011 Cheltenham festival, some trainers fitted earplugs to their horses in the hope that ‘hearing no evil’ might help them remain calm and conserve energy. Prior to the use of earplugs, there is no telling how many anxious horses left their chances (and punter’s money) behind the stands.
The use of earplugs need not formally be declared by trainers so I don’t know how many festival losers wore them. But two winners did: Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly and Gold Cup winner Long Run. Both horses were well supported in the market.
Racing Enterprises Ltd CEO, Rod Street’s recent blog entry contained these words:
“On the subject of betting, whilst we’ll wait for the detailed review of our recent survey, I do sense that racing does not maximise what should be a symbiotic relationship with existing punters who have telling and knowledgeable contributions to make. Again, social media provides the platform for feedback from punters who often feel at the wrong end of the queue when it comes to representation in the industry and regularly cite a lack of transparency over the industry’s workings. This is a challenge racing must meet. We need to find a means through which those punters know that their constructive viewpoints can make a difference”
Rod has the toughest job in racing, in my opinion, but he is steering the industry in the right direction; public airing of his views on testy subjects like the importance of off-course punter are refreshing. I doubt he would have put those words down without thorough consideration.
So it’s time the words were backed up with action. £20,000 is needed to fund database changes so that punters can be informed when a horse is fitted with earplugs. The fact that the information should be out there seems not to be in dispute. The problem is the admin costs in making appropriate changes to the database – put at £20,000.
Austerity is in vogue but trying to make a virtue of it for such a paltry sum in a £billion industry is plain daft.
Racing wants more from ‘the betting industry’: the betting industry is funded by the punter. He is paying the piper and is entitled to call the tune, even if an animal he bets on might be unable to hear it.