More than meets the eye when it comes to animal cruelty

A randy thoroughbred can be intimidating in every way, a hazard to themselves and others

Thoroughbreds are pampered to a level many humans might envy, but they are  not pets. File photograph: Wikicommons

Thoroughbreds are pampered to a level many humans might envy, but they are not pets. File photograph: Wikicommons

 

Last Monday at Windsor races a rambunctious three-year-old colt called Mofaaji reacted to the presence of a nearby filly with a spontaneous show of strength.

Such amorous displays aren’t unusual among male thoroughbreds still in possession of their reproductive equipment. Such behaviour gets euphemistically referred to as “colty”.

That’s normally good for a titter among parade-ring onlookers, accompanied as it often is by flustered trainers trying to get their charge’s mind back to racing by flicking at it with a race card or whatever’s handy.

Mofaaji however became very colty, to the extent he was apparently “climbing all over” the unfortunate groom leading him.

A half tonne of rampant thoroughbred is an intimidating proposition in every way. In such circumstances they can be dangerous to themselves and others. On Monday not many saw the joke.

Ideally in such circumstances the equine equivalent of the famed chilled tea spoon is a bucket of cold water. But in this case one of the Mofaaji team opted for a needs-must solution. He tried to flick some perspective into the horse with his shoe. Or, in the rather blunt words of the subsequent stewards enquiry, attempted to “kick Mofaaji in the groin area”.

Was he supposed to do nothing and leave the situation escalate? 

When the stewards report appeared online it cued social media fury and accusations of cruelty. Within much of racing that outrage was met with corresponding incredulity about the guy getting fined £200.

Was he supposed to do nothing and leave the situation escalate? After all, debating theories of restraint with 500kgs of randy horseflesh is a luxury not usually afforded people working on a practical day-to-day basis with impulsive and potentially dangerous large animals.

Certainly the inevitable riposte about how’d you like it if it happened to you falls down on the basis of hardly comparing like with like.

So there was plenty reaction along the lines of the world having gone PC mad and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) losing further contact with reality by fining someone for just doing their job.

If context was once again a victim in such a furore it did reveal a fracture between those who work with horses and those for whom they can mostly be a theoretical concept rather than a living breathing beautiful creature capable of taking a chunk out of you if its grub is late.

It’s true that the concept of broad social acceptance is an intangible one

The Windsor incident vividly reflected the fault line. But it also illustrated how bridging it is vital to racing’s long-term health during fundamental demographic change in attitudes towards animal sports.

It’s the context to the BHA chief executive Nick Rust’s comments earlier this year about the importance of maintaining racing’s “social licence” with the public. It got a response mostly dismissive of airy-fairy concepts relating to a general public often oblivious to the sport’s charms.

It’s true that the concept of broad social acceptance is an intangible one. But anyone dismissing its existence needs only look at how the greyhound industry’s licence is shredding in front of our eyes on the back of a recent RTÉ investigation.

No one needs to know anything about dog racing to recognise an ethical dilemma surrounding the overproduction of these animals for human entertainment.

Since the broadcast it has started haemorrhaging corporate sponsorship and the future of its annual State subsidy is being questioned.

That highlights the danger of animal sports apparently failing to live up to its side of a contract with a public which might be mostly unaware but presumes proper welfare regulation is a given. Certainly once that trust is broken it’s hard to restore.

No one will be surprised at the racing correspondent of this organisation declining to be a Christmas voting turkey and instead arguing that the thoroughbred game is a very different proposition.

Everyday public faith in some of its dodgier characters – both human and equine – might be at a premium sometimes. But there remains general trust that the animals at the centre of it all are treated properly.

Maintaining that trust must be racing’s greatest priority. Transitory issues like funding are superfluous in comparison to preserving public goodwill. Without that, everything else crumbles, especially at a time of rapidly changing social standards.

It is a needless own goal that such steps have only been introduced in Ireland in 2019

Racing is slowly coming around to acknowledging how its fundamental self-interest lies in its perception by a public who may have little interest beyond the Grand National once a year but always reserve the right to make their own minds up.

That two hundred quid Windsor fine is a tiny acknowledgement of that self-interest. It’s also being expressed in tighter whip regulations and long-awaited first steps taken towards greater traceability of the thoroughbred population.

It is a needless own goal that such steps have only been introduced in Ireland in 2019. Tracing livestock has been possible for years. Such a delay reeks of an unrealistic complacency that presumes public trust is a given. It isn’t. Events at the Santa Anita track in California this year prove that.

Racing here has had its own ugly welfare stories and while they are exceptional cases in the overall they prove the rule as to how proper systemic regulatory vigilance is vital. Welfare not only must be the number one priority but must proactively be seen to be so.

That’s why the Windsor stewards weren’t wrong. It was an incident that did however also show how misplaced reflex outrage can be sometimes at what are often the practicalities of dealing with racehorses.

The sad reality is that there’s abundant evidence of real animal cruelty elsewhere, probably even involved in the production of your breakfast this morning.

In comparison thoroughbreds are pampered to a level many humans might envy. But they’re not pets. They can occasionally require forceful handling for their own good. Aiming a shoe at Mofaaji was inadvisable. But leaving him to his own devices would have been a cop out.

Acknowledging both perspectives shouldn’t be impossible, especially since it means the ultimate winners are the stars of the show.

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