False trails laid as hierarchy rallies to a cause

As racing's top administrators line up with the hunting lobby, Greg Wood questions the connection with field sports

There is a fundamental truth about fox hunting which its supporters are desperate to obscure. Strip away all the blather about tradition and pest control, ignorant townsfolk and respect for their quarry, and there it is: people go fox-hunting for the simple reason that it gives them great pleasure to pursue a wild animal to its death. Admit this fact, however, and their argument is lost, since hunting is exposed as just another relic of more brutal times, which has as much place in the modern world as cock-fighting or badger-baiting.

As a result, the hunters take refuge behind whatever scraps of cover they can find, and it is for this reason that the growing debate over Michael Foster's Wild Mammals (Hunting With Dogs) Bill should be of interest to anyone who follows racing. As ever when the subject is discussed, the hunting lobby is trying to embroil racing in its argument, claiming that a ban on one would be to the detriment of the other. What is particularly disturbing this time around, though, is that the sport's most senior administrators appear to have swallowed it.

Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the British Horseracing Board, and Tristram Ricketts, its chief executive, will both attend the "Countryside Rally" in Hyde Park on Thursday, part of the concerted campaign being mounted by the hunters now that it seems likely that Parliament will finally put an end to their "sport". Of Wakeham, the Rent-A-Nob who manages to find time for numerous directorships in addition to his duties at the BHB, we can perhaps expect nothing more, but Ricketts, an intelligent man who is employed to act in the industry's best interests, really should know better.

For there is not a shred of worthwhile evidence to suggest that the abolition of fox- hunting would have the slightest effect on racing. True, we might see the back of hunter chases, but for this many punters, notably any who have ever seen a Placepot doomed by a sack-of-potatoes amateur rider, would be thoroughly grateful, while there should still be sufficient drag hunts to continue the tradition if anyone is really bothered.

There are claims too that point-to-pointing, which is run principally to raise money for hunts, would all but disappear, yet the passage of Foster's Bill could instead be a new beginning. Just as steeplechasing has grown far beyond its origins in the hunting field, so too could pointing become a pursuit in its own right, not least once the financial drain of the hunts is removed. Amateurs will surely still want to ride and race, while the knowledge that their entrance money will not be used to support the hounds could attract more spectators to watch them.

The idea that top-class chasers will no longer progress to racing under Rules via hunting and pointing is equally ridiculous, since common sense and basic economics suggest otherwise. Quite simply, a talented racehorse is too valuable to be left munching grass in a field, and one way or another, those with real talent will always find their way to the top tracks. Market forces demand it.

If hunting were to be criminalised this evening, racing would carry on tomorrow afternoon just as it always has. Yet Ricketts and Wakeham are apparently content to allow the hunters to use racing as a shield, to soak up some of the punishment on their behalf. They should perhaps take a moment to study their job descriptions before leaving for Hyde Park on Thursday, and consider whether it is in the interests of the business which employs them to associate themselves, publicly and officially, with an activity which a large majority of the British population regards with disgust.

Hunting no longer offers any benefits to racing, and racing owes it no debt. It is now time for the hunting fraternity to leave us alone and fight what is left of the argument on its own dubious merits. Nor is it too late for Lord Wakeham and Tristram Ricketts to check their diaries and decide that when it comes to the unfortunate clash between Thursday's rally in Hyde Park and the July Cup the same afternoon, the sprinters at Newmarket should have the first call on their time.

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