Hunt supporters hound the Bill

Greg Wood argues that racing should distance itself from blood sports to avoid being found guilty by association
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Today, the House of Commons will consider a Bill which would effectively abolish point-to-pointing, hasten a similar fate for National Hunt racing as a whole, and might ultimately lead to legislation which would make it a crime to live anywhere but a major town or city.

Only hunting's more hysterical supporters would subscribe to all those fears, but the central tenets of that opinion are voiced regularly by certain traditionalists within racing and were aired again yesterday when The Sporting Life reported thoroughly on the subject under a headline "Country life under threat".

The Bill in question, of course, is the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill, which will receive its second reading today. Its provisions include a ban on hunting with hounds, which supporters of fox hunting often claim would be detrimental to jump racing. This is an argument which has been promoted by many people with influence in National Hunt racing before previous parliamentary debates on hunting. It is complete nonsense.

Questions about hunting's usefulness in keeping down the fox population, or the idea that ignorant town-dwellers are out to destroy country ways, will no doubt be addressed elsewhere. As far as racing goes, however, if Parliament bans fox hunting there is absolutely no reason to think that punters and racegoers will notice the slightest difference. People will not stop breeding or owning steeplechasers, nor will they stop wishing to see them compete. The fact that chasing developed from hunting is irrelevant. Football developed from medieval free-for-alls, but no-one would argue that Vinnie Jones should be congratulated for preserving the sport's contact with its roots.

Point-to-pointing, which has attracted growing support in recent years, is run by, and for the benefit of, hunts, and all horses taking part must "qualify" by taking part in a hunt. Even here, however, it is hard to see why such a popular pastime should not continue to find followers without the need to qualify horses. Without its hunting link, in fact, it might even attract more.

"Most of the money raised by point-to-points goes to subsidise hunts," Kevin Saunders, of the League Against Cruel Sports, says. "If it was ploughed into the sport itself, rather than into keeping the hounds and mending fences and what have you, it could develop in its own right."

Many people in racing - trainers, jockeys, owners - are keen hunters, and as such are eager to convince us that the sport will suffer if hunting is banned. Until now, such claims have been simply misguided, but as the concept of animal rights finds an increasing number of supporters at all levels of society, this association could become positively dangerous for racing.

The turf's apparent enthusiasm for hunting is no longer just an anachronism. It is now becoming an embarrassment, which should override the self-interest of those racing professionals who ride to hounds. It is surely not wise, for example, for a leisure industry to associate itself with a pursuit which is so unpopular with the general population, yet six racecourses will today stage rallies against the Bill.

When Cheltenham next stages its "Countryside day", complete with hounds and hunting pinks, its executive would do well to remember that perhaps 50 per cent, and maybe even more, of those watching on television will find the spectacle distasteful.

In the longer term, meanwhile, when hunting is banned - something which even its strongest supporters expect to happen within five years - some of those who have opposed it will seek a new target. When that moment arrives, it would be in racing's best interests to be as far away as possible.

Racing does not depend on or need fox hunting, and does not condone unnecessary cruelty, but it runs the risk of being found guilty by association. It is a point which the turf's hunt enthusiasts should consider when they next attempt to use racing as ammunition in their ever more desperate campaign.