It’s not often I feel inclined to offer a little advice to editors of newspapers.
But, what the heck, I worked fulltime in newspapers for 25 years, so indulge me for a couple of minutes.
My advice is pretty simple, really: never let your racing reporters leap to the defence of their beloved sport over the issue of horse deaths in jumps racing.
For those not up with this issue, the topic is stirring controversy in Victoria.
The current Australian season is unfolding with a sword perched squarely over the sport’s neck, waiting to fall if this season’s death toll of horses is deemed too high.
For a time last season, Racing Victoria suspended jumps racing pending yet another review of safety within the sport.
Australian racing writers leapt to the defence of jumps racing, offering up half-cocked shoot-from-the-lip defences of the sport that were bound to get bountiful approval from their mates at Racing Victoria and their friendly local racehorse trainers.
I read them, shook my head, and moved on.
Now, the issue has had a little airing on this side of the Tasman, and – you guessed it – another racing writer has leapt to the defence of the sport. Yet another couple of minutes of my life have been wasted reading what I’m sorry to say is effectively a bunch of claptrap.
I don’t actually have a problem with racing writers defending jumps racing, but I’ve yet to see one mount a defence that might lift it from the ranks of anything other than budgie-cage lining.
New Zealand Herald racing writer Mike Dillon has waded into the debate and his logic and arguments have failed to break the mould.
By breaking the mould, I mean look at the facts without clouding the issue with a whole bunch of mis-related facts that he possibly believes pass as entertaining writing.
So what has provoked Dillon to leap to the defence of jumps racing?
Apparently, a weekend newspaper sports columnist didn’t much like what he saw in the Waikato Hurdles at Te Rapa 10 days ago.
It seems a horse collapsed and died from a heart attack, not from a jumps fall that proved fatal.
This would appear to be a major points victory for Dillon. No broken legs. No need for a lethal injection. A perfectly splendid outcome.
Or perhaps not. I never saw the race, but Sunday Star Times reporter Barry Lichter began his account thus: “Leading jumps jockey Tommy Hazlett reckons he’s lucky to be alive after yesterday’s nightmarish Waikato Hurdles, where riders and horses were left sprawled all over the course and fallers outnumbered the finishers.”
This spectacle has failed to deter Dillon from launching into his supposed defence of jumps racing. It seems the columnist he was criticising did not appear to much like the mayhem, carnage and death he apparently witnessed.
“That columnist would clearly like to see jumps racing BANNED,” the insightful Dillon asserted.
Sadly, it was all downhill from here. Those racing-reporter genes just can’t be helped.
Dillon goes on to explore deaths in a range of other sports such as ice hockey, American football, and even – horrors of horrors – “the beautiful game” of football. Ban ’em, said Dillon, his tongue firmly in his cheek, of course.
It wasn’t that Dillon’s comment piece was completely devoid of facts. For example, we learn that football has claimed no fewer than 76 people in the last 113 years, the latest on May 8.
However, it was devoid of any fact that might be useful in looking at the issue of jumps-racing deaths.
Dillon did offer us this gem: “Horses actually love jumping.”
Maybe they do, but I’ve never seen a horse jump anything when it had the option of walking around it.
Let’s boil this issue down.
Everything we do involves risk and return. A lot of people have played soccer and it seems a few have died. That’s tough. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that people have died in ice hockey, or motor racing, or figure-skating, or whatever sport you care to choose.
The difference is that the participants choose to take part in their sport and, we expect, understand the risk, no matter how small.
Horses don’t have that choice.
It is the size of the jumps-racing risk that has a growing number of people uneasy about the sport in Australia.
I’ll use Australia as an example, given that the issue has had a much more public airing across the Tasman.
Most Australian states have banned the sport, but Victoria and South Australia still allow it.
Let’s quote the Victoria RSPCA (which believes jumps racing should be banned): “Approximately one in 24 horses that started a jumps racing event last season was killed on the racetrack. Even more alarmingly, it is estimated one in four horses sustained injuries during the same season and have not been seen on the track again.
“The odds that a horse will die or be seriously injured are better than those a punter could expect to be paid by a bookmaker.”
One would hope the odds of survival in New Zealand are rather better than that.
One chance in 24 of dying in a jumps season? I don’t much like those odds, and its transpires your average Australian doesn’t much like them, either.
Independent research has shown 76 per cent of females want jumps racing banned, and 74 per cent of 18-34 year-olds think the same way.
Forty-three per cent of respondents in the survey felt less favourably towards the racing industry because of jumps racing, and 36 per cent felt less favourably towards sponsors of the racing industry because of jumps racing.
Twenty-six per cent either no longer attended any race meetings or would consider not attending in the future because of jumps racing.
The Victoria RSPCA points out that jumps racing comprises just 0.71 per cent of racing turnover in that country. Flat racing carries only a fraction of the risk, and while there are certainly those who would like to see it banned, it is nowhere near in the same risky league as jumps racing.
I guess one shouldn’t get bogged down with tiresome old facts to support an argument.
The columnist that Dillon took issue with was Richard Boock. There is one more observation worth noting. Clearly, Boock did not much like what he saw at Te Rapa. If there’s no enjoyment to be had, perhaps Boock, and many others, will vote with their feet when it comes to viewing a jumps “spectacle”. With the exception of a few glittering days, racing attendances are certainly not what they once were.
So, editors, remember this. When you’re sitting in your office and your racing scribe wanders in and says, “The looney brigade is attacking jumps racing and I have an insightful line of defence I would like to offer up to our beloved readers”, tell them to sod off.
Instead, suggest they write something about the woeful level of industry initiatives and support available to ensure racehorses have a good life after their short track careers.
They almost certainly won’t write the story, but at least they won’t be knocking on your door again for a while.