Picture it: Goodwood show grounds, circa 1990. I was in my mid-teens and had spent every last bit of pocket money entering for what is now known as Agri Expo (the original ‘glorious Goodwood!’). It was an annual pilgrimage for equestrians from all over the country and one generally camped at the showgrounds for a week and got to see the best of the best doing what they do best. I was under no illusions as to my riding prowess, so had aimed for showing, rather than the more technical jumping or dressage classes. The best and most beautiful show horses entered Western Province showing classes, while the rest of us slogged it out in the more workmanlike SA Riding Horse classes in a far arena. I was there with Whisky, my mom’s little hand-me-down flea-bitten grey Boerperd, who was many things, but glamorous and brave he was not. To top it off, he had something of a nervous disposition and could bolt like nobody’s business when the mood took him (and it took him often). However, teenagers are bullet-proof and I’d optimistically entered a raft of classes and bathed and brushed and plaited until you could practically see your face in his morose coat.
Every kid rider – whether you were one or still are one, only in bigger clothes – is familiar with a showing class called ‘Working Riding Horse’. In it, folks are invited to enter their horses for an event that is essentially booby trapped. The organisers dream up all manner of challenges and riders can be asked to do anything from picking up and opening an umbrella, to piggy backing a ginormous teddy bear, to dodging flags, carrying a bucket of water or even, on this particular occasion, having to ride around an ambulance with its lights flashing and siren blaring. Whoever survives the class and stays on their horse wins. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but only a little. It is only by the grace of God and some deft footwork from the ring stewards that I lived to tell the tale. My point being that horses don’t terribly like surprises, with big noisy surprises being pretty far down on their list indeed.
2016 J&B Met
Which brings me to this year’s J&B Met. Last week John Freeman wrote an excellent blog post voicing his disappointment at the operators’ and organisers’ handling of the entertainment on Met day. The piece has already been widely shared and discussed and there have been comments for and against.
To their credit, the operators have responded with a press release stating: “the safety of horse and rider was of overriding importance at all times on any given race day and security measures would be put in place to ensure control.” They also apologised to connections of horses that might have been affected.
I don’t think that’s good enough and here’s why. Horsemanship does not begin and end in the training stable and operators have a duty of care to our horses on race days too. There is a huge difference between not knowing and not caring, and it is a very important one. I’m sorry guys, but saying you didn’t know really isn’t going to wash. Firstly, this is not the first time it has happened. I was on course the day Welwitschia went over backwards in the Kenilworth saddling enclosure back in 2012 due to ‘entertainment’ that had been positioned too close to the horses. Exhibit 2: Kenilworth Racing hosted a Met launch last November, smack in the middle of a mid-week race day, complete with performances from some of our Met day DJ’s. Trainers voiced complaints that it was upsetting the horses, but were told they had two choices – like it or lump it. Lastly, Mr Freeman advised Kenilworth Racing staff on the Friday before the Met that the music was too loud to no less than the COO and chairman of the local board.
There is a standing joke that horses are only scared of two things – things that move and things that don’t. Unfortunately, despite horses being our main line of business, apparently it somehow came as a surprise that they might find loud music upsetting (which is about on a par with British Rail’s annual excuse for cancelling trains because of leaves on the tracks. Oddly, this happens roughly every autumn. You’d think they’d have worked it out by now). But moving swiftly on. In race 11, the day’s festivities resulted in the Snaith runner, Mutzi, taking fright on parade and dislodging jockey S’manga Khumalo, resulting in S’manga being injured and stood down for the last two rides of the day. The start of race 11 was delayed while Justin Snaith scrambled frantically for a replacement rider and Lucian Africa kindly stepped into the breach. Justin ended up accompanying the unsettled horse and rider on foot all the way to the start (thank goodness for all that marathon training!) and Mutzi managed to finish a creditable 5th. Interestingly, the Stipendiary report for the day reflects that “Trainer S J Snaith will be advised that should this gelding behave in a similar manner in its future engagements he may be suspended.” Which frankly beggars belief.
The fuss in race 11 resulted in race 12 being delayed and with S’manga stood down, Justin had to find a replacement rider for Baritone in the last – something he could sorely have done without at that particular point in the day. While every race day has its problems, something as easily remedied and managed as the music should not be one of them.
There have been plenty of the ‘fuddy duddy’ brigade saying ‘horses should be used to it’, ‘it’s just one day’, etc etc. It would be my absolute pleasure to invite any and all of you to come and have a little sit on my horse at home one nice, sunny afternoon. I’ll invite a bunch of friends and their horses to join in the fun. I won’t interfere at all, I promise. In fact, I’ll go and hide in a bush and at a time of my choosing I will turn my stereo on at full blast with something nice and loud to create a good vibe. If there’s anything left of you by the time you get back to the stables, I’ll cheerfully continue the discussion about why horses should be OK with race day festivities over a nice bottle of Valium and a Voltaren or two.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (find out what it means to me!)
Having been berated for not being nice to sponsors and then trying hard to be nice to sponsors in the last few columns, I’m afraid I’m going to fall foul of the sponsorship brigade again. Yes, we do need sponsors, but surely it’s important that they treat our sport with the dignity and respect it deserves, else they’re really shooting themselves in the foot and losing the very reason they chose to partner with racing in the first place. And here I’m blaming the operator, rather than the sponsor as we are the horse people and we are supposed to know better.
Coordinating and putting on big race days is no mean feat, but it can be done and it can be done well with a little thought and a little planning. The Met is, or certainly was, considered the Cape’s flagship race day and – in theory at least – a chance for everyone to see the best that racing has to offer. Accordingly, one would think that the operators would roll out the red carpet for all the participants – horses and human – who help make the day a success.
However, one tiny detail that Mr Freeman missed in his letter was the clutch of portaloos lining the chute on the way to the track. While I appreciate that the hedge along the fence probably made it seem a discreet place to put them, really guys? Nevermind the music, the balloons, or anything else, I think that more or less said it all about where our horses sit on the priority list – quite literally next to the crapper.
If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for everything
Horses communicate using body language. More specifically, they express dominance by moving other horses around. If you observe any group of horses, it’s easy to tell who’s the boss because when she (and yes, it’s most often a mare) moves, everyone else gets out of her way. Generally speaking horses try to avoid conflict and as long as it’s not a matter of survival, the less aggressive ones give way to the dominant ones. Humans may not use body language in quite the same way, but we don’t function all that differently. Aggressive individuals simply throw their weight around and keep pushing less dominant counterparts about until eventually people make way for them automatically. Has racing just given up and started allowing sponsors to dictate to us? And if so, at what price?
Why we shouldn’t be a three ring circus
Big brands are worth big money and they are usually pretty choosy about where they spend their marketing cash. Racing is a fantastic sport – we have great people, great history and above all, great horses. If a brand has chosen to align itself with racing, it has done so in the hopes that it will be a mutually beneficial partnership. In other words, they have taken an overview of what racing is and what racing does and made a conscious decision that racing will enhance its image and appeal. So let’s consider what racing’s appeal might be and what sets us apart from other sports or leisure activities. Firstly, there’s the horse – that’s (hopefully) a no-brainer. Secondly is the fact that it’s an outdoor spectator sport with easy mass appeal. Thirdly we have history, heritage and tradition. In short, we have cachet and in today’s fast food, disposable everything lifestyle, that’s pretty unique and pretty special and it’s something people clearly view as desirable and worth associating with (as we have seen in the case of the Queen’s Plate). Which makes it all the more puzzling that we try to lure people to the racetrack with tawdry side shows like booze and bands. Why are we selling racing so short?
It doesn’t make sense when one compares how other sports handle big days or flagship tournaments. The words Wimbledon, Silverstone, Lords or Old Trafford are synonymous with excellence in tennis, Formula One, cricket and football and they are marketed accordingly. You don’t go to Wimbledon to watch a band between volleys, you go expecting to watch the best take on the best. If I’m not mistaken, that used to be what horse racing was about too.
Our sport is called HORSE racing. We breed, raise and race horses for our sport and also for our profit (well, mainly loss, but you know what I mean). Horses are our core business. Parties, fashions, DJ’s loud music and everything that goes with that are not. I’m not entirely sure when or how the two got so muddled, but I bet the culprit has never sat on a horse.
Day after day we ask our horses to put their hearts, minds and bodies on the line for us. In a risky sport in which we demand maximum performance at break neck (break leg?) speeds, is it really too much to ask that we show a little consideration and allow our horses to get on with the job that we have bred, raised and trained them for, rather than making them play second fiddle to the party bus? It’s a question of respect more than anything else and if we don’t respect ourselves, can we really expect anyone else to? Perhaps we should stop standing back for sponsors and start standing up for racing.