I am a big fan of young writer Natalie Keller-Reinert who blogs about horses, racing and life. She is the author of a number of equestrian fiction books and is currently trying to encourage writers to contribute to the emerging ‘equestrian fiction’ genre.
Pondering why there is such a dearth of books aimed at the equestrian enthusiast, she referenced an interview with Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize winning writer, author of a number of books and also a racehorse breeder and owner. In short, when it comes to horses and writing, she knows her eggs. A few years ago, Smiley penned an equestrian novel titled ‘Horse Heaven’ which took the equestrian scene by storm. But despite its success, there was no sequel. Asked why she had chosen not to write another ‘Horse Heaven’, Smiley replied, “The horse audience will toss the book out of the window if the voice isn’t expert. The audience isn’t big, and they’re critical, although they’re enthusiastic when they’re committed. Sometimes you can make it work and sometimes you can’t. It’s not an easy audience to write for.”
Horses – loaded with danger
The reason writing – or in fact offering anything else – to the horsey community is tough, is that it is an exceptionally specialist market which demands a huge amount of time, effort and money. Or as Les Carlyon once wrote, “It is loaded with danger – physical and financial – and comes with the hint of conspiracy”, so perhaps it’s not unreasonable that the equestrian community is a particularly tough and demanding one and expects the same level of passion and dedication from the folks running the show.
The audience is highly passionate and tends to be very well versed in their subject. In short, it’s a market that knows what it wants and why it wants it. It’s a market that also tends to be quite vocal about its wants and needs, so if you haven’t done your homework and are not 100% authentic and convinced about what you are doing, you can expect to be called out on it. Loudly. I think the best description I ever heard of horse people is that if you put three of them in a room together, the only thing you’d be able to get two of them to agree on is that the third one is wrong.
OK, let’s talk turkey. Saturday, 3 September 2016. Turffontein. Race 1. While watching the incident and comments and recriminations roll in via our website, social media, racing forums and even actual conversation between actual people, was akin to watching a slow motion train wreck – particularly given that this sort of thing gets beamed out live all around the world, to every racing jurisdiction that Phumelela sells our picture to (and anyone who missed it the first time round can also catch a replay on Youtube), I was also strangely fascinated, because it provided the most compelling slice of evidence of what the racing public out there really thinks.
The media (and a few select individuals) often gets credited with giving racing bad press. And while I understand entirely that no-one enjoys criticism, no matter how tactful or constructive it might be – I have to wonder whether it hasn’t occurred to anyone that this supposed ‘negativity’ might be based on the fact that there is an actual problem. Over and over people are written off or dismissed as being troublemakers or being bad for racing for pointing out that the system is not working. But instead of going ‘hey, the reason they are complaining is that the system is not robust enough’, the knee jerk reaction is just to shoot the messenger. Not very smart IMHO, but then I’m usually sitting on the wrong end of the barrel.
Now I’m not saying this to have a go at anyone in particular. I’m trying rather to take a step back and get a better view of the bigger picture. Last weekend was the first time that the racing public stood up en masse to say, in great big flashing neon lights, “Houston, we have a problem.”
There are many facets to Saturday’s incident but to me, the root cause of the problem stems from a deep lack of trust in the system. And that is a problem because it goes right to the core of our business. One cannot invest in something you do not trust and without that investment – of horses and of the betting rand – we are dead in the water.
As I have written before, our rules define our sport. Our regulators set our rules and therefore, the regulator sets the clocks by which we run our sport. If we cannot trust in our rules and in our regulators, well then we cannot trust in our sport. It is that simple. And sadly, looking at the dwindling number of breeders, owners, trainers and more importantly, punters – that is our current reality.
I put my horses and my money on the line in order to get to know and to test the system. What did I learn? Sadly, that I don’t want to have horses in racing any more as – in my opinion (and I stress that it is only my opinion based on my personal experience) the risk and effort far outweighed the rewards. It hasn’t put me off horses as I still have all the horses I raced. However, I simply prefer to spend my leisure rand where I feel I get a fair exchange for my input.
I am not the last of the big spenders – I did not have expensive horses and I am not interested in big punts. I was there without any expectations of winning the Met or the July and really just wanted to participate in the old fashioned sense to watch my horses run and try to have a bit of fun. So I cannot say that I walked away because of a fight with anyone, or a big financial loss or even a bitter disappointment. The main reason I decided to check out was exactly what we saw on Saturday. I simply did not trust that my simple little interest and my simple little self were safe-guarded by the rules and regulations of our sport – in short – by our regulator. And that makes me sad.
That statement is not a direct criticism at any one person in particular – past or present – but I don’t think it’s exactly a state secret that all is not well with our august institution.
As such I was encouraged by the appointment of Lyndon Barends as the new CEO / MD of the NHA back in March, even if I wasn’t entirely encouraged by the manner in which the position was filled. Nevertheless, Mr Barends seemed a broad-thinking individual and it is my humble opinion that people who have nothing to hide, generally don’t, so the fact that he was willing to engage with the press and the public immediately scored him brownie points with me and allowed me a modicum of hope. I enjoyed meeting with him and although we didn’t agree on all points (if we did, he’d be the writer and I’d be the CEO or vice versa), it was at least possible to have an equitable difference of opinion – a rather refreshing experience.
I caught up with Mr Barends again recently ahead of the Cape stop of his current road show. Again, I was not in full agreement with the fact that neither owners, nor press were invited to a discussion about race day medications and other matters pertaining to the management of race horses, but Mr Barends explained that owners sign an authority to act entrusting that a trainer knows his way around the rules of racing and he felt it was the role of the NHA to ensure trainers were correctly reminded and informed. Which I had to concede made sense (even though I’m not a fan of that blasted document).
I asked some pointed questions and Mr Barends answered as fully as he was able given his short period of tenure, the current stage of each of the matters and also how much he was allowed to divulge. Which is all anyone can ask for really. He gave me a brief overview of what he has achieved to date and his plans going forward (yay! Someone with a plan!) and we left on good terms.
And then, perhaps to prove it has a sense of humour, the universe dished up Saturday afternoon and in the space of a few minutes all the ground Mr Barends has so carefully been trying to build up over the last few months came crashing down around our ears.
While I’m not trying to incite violence, if there is any silver lining to any of this, it is the fact that we have had such an enormous reaction – people have waded in from all directions and the comments are STILL rolling in. In a funny kind of way, this has been the best evidence that I have seen in years that racing still has an active pulse and that there are still people who care. And judging by the commentary out there, there are still quite a lot of them and they care a LOT. That’s great! That means we still have an audience. And currently all their attention is directed at us in mega high definition. So the question is what are we going to do with it?
Rightly or wrongly, the overall message I got from all the comments and feedback is that people feel that the decision-makers simply do not have a comprehensive understanding of what they are doing. If – and I said if – that is so, the question we have to ask is why? Not to embarrass the man further – I am sure he is feeling wretched enough as it is – but Mr Thulani Khanyeli could not even get the horses’ names correct consistently on Saturday. On camera. Being broadcast to the entire racing world. I understand that English may not be his first language and that’s OK, but it’s a matter of attention to detail and well, of taking the matter – and ourselves – seriously. If we want to survive, we need to do better.
So now what?
Again, this is not a finger-pointing exercise. Hopefully, if anything, it has been a mirror on the industry showing us where a few of our problems lie. If we are smart, we will direct our energies to addressing the problems, rather than calling for Mr Khanyeli’s head, which might address the symptom, but will not cure the disease.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”. Perhaps what we want are less lawyers and accountants and businessmen and (heaven help us) half-baked marketing gurus and simply a few more horsemen.