Hunting lobby are on the wrong course

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The Independent Online
IF YOU happen to have been on a racecourse over the past fortnight or so, you will almost certainly have been subjected to propaganda regarding last Friday's private member's Bill to outlaw fox-hunting, stag-hunting and hare- coursing, introduced by John McFall, Labour MP for Dumbarton. Needless to say, the "information highway" in these instances were all one-way streets, all determinedly aimed at thwarting the Bill, or at least making racegoers aware of its potential for success.

At the last meeting at Wincanton, the day ended with a hectoring Tannoy announcement similar in tone to an Islamic "call to prayer" from the turret of a mosque. The gist of the announcement was that there was "a most dangerous Bill" before Parliament, and that there would be a rally at the racecourse on the day of its Parliamentary debate. Then at Haydock, televised by the BBC, the afternoon's spectacle included a parade of hunt members and their hounds.

The reason racecourses have been annexed by the pro-hunt fraternity is quite simple - most of them are owned and run by hunt members and supporters so, irrespective of anyone's wish for an escapist day at the races (is there any other?), this is where a high-profile element of the campaign to preserve field sports will be waged.

Behind the bellowing announcements, the rallies and John Bull parades, there is a barely concealed assumption that all people who go to watch racing, in particular the jumps, must be pro- hunting. I admit I've never conducted a straw poll or a vox-pop on this subject when I've been at the races, but I'd be pressed to recall, in all the scurrying between bars and betting ring, a single moment when the subject of hunting has been touched upon. Even the wretched Quadpot has rated higher on the conversational scale.

But no matter, neutrals are not allowed in this dirty war, so all race- goers are deemed to be potential converts, hence the relentless promotion of the scaremongering notion that if hunting should ever fall, it would certainly take horse-racing with it. Yes - that's what the pro-hunt campaign are using as their Doomsday weapon, the idea that a multi-billion pound international industry will be dismantled if a few thousand huntsmen and women are denied their right to chase cross-country after foxes and stags.

Now I'll buy the historical and social links between hunting and racing, and I'll accept that many steeplechasing horses learnt their skills hurtling over hedges and dry-stone walls. But this is 1995 not 1895, and the idea that a minority pursuit underpins a mass-market leisure industry - insert cotton-wool pads into cheeks, adopt Marlon Brando accent - "insults my intelligence".

Do the hunting fraternity really imagine that punters in a Holloway Road betting shop are going to march on Parliament to urge the rejection of Mr McFall's Bill? Do they think that professional racehorse trainers and jockeys will withdraw their labour until the threat to hunting is lifted? Do they not realise that if they ever managed to organise a boycott of horses from race meetings as a protest, Ladbrokes would fly in a few hundred ostriches for punters to bet on?

The desperation of the pro- hunting campaigners in the face of growing opposition has seen them adopt many strategies over the past few years. First they cloaked themselves in "environmental causes", claiming that the hunting of foxes was the most efficient and humane method of ridding the land of this furry pest. But this claim is scuppered by the statistics that they put out, intended to try and defuse the cruelty issue, that only one fox in 10 is ever killed. If that's pest control, it's a cowboy business they're running.

They have also adopted, with fixed grimaces, the notion of "egalitarianism", roping in a few socialist barristers and millionaires who support hunting, and also adopting a hitherto unknown concern for potential "job losses" among the agricultural underclass. The fact that they have now embraced a tactic last used by the anti-apartheid protesters, bringing protest politics into sport, is a fair measure of their exhausted state as the animal rights lobbyists hunt them down. Can we now therefore expect the return leg of Chelsea's tie with Bruges to be hijacked by Norman Lamont broadcasting his Euro-sceptic views to a crowd already swayed by Belgian police tactics?

Personally, I have no strong views on hunting, or its prevention. Both sides of the argument seem several prawns short of a cocktail when it comes to a coherent case, not to mention the tricky business of their lack of perspective on more serious examples of inhumanity. But I do dislike their intrusions into racing, whether its bellowing in my ear after the last at Wincanton or attempting to disrupt the start of the Grand National at Aintree.

Most people I know go racing to avoid the real world not to have it thrust upon them. If hunting wants to survive, it should, I suggest, pursue the place-mat and Christmas card heritage route and simply come clean about many of its undoubted pleasures and privileges. It may even wish to seek support in the European courts which most of its supporters profess to despise. But I hope it will stop hunting trying to pretend that it is a significant peninsula still attached to the land mass of horseracing.

It's our game now, not yours.

LEAVING aside the mayhem he has caused, Nick Leeson, the man who broke Baring's bank, has performed two services for the legions of punters. First, by exposing the huge volume of fatuous speculation on financial derivatives, he has made anyone who's ever lashed out on a £5 win Yankee look like John Wesley by comparison. No longer can we be charged with profligacy or degeneracy. The true heathens sit behind computer screens or scramble around dealing floors betting on things they can't see, risking thousands of jobs and the savings of monarchs.

Leeson's second contribution to the rehabilitation of sporting punters has been to expose the lunacy of the spread bet, which is the increasingly popular sports version of the wagers he was trying to place on the rise of the Japanese stock market. The seductive process is identical, too. If you think you know what's going to win, why not also gamble on the margin of victory? Leeson's fall is a lesson to all who might be tempted to back their wisdom on such derivatives as the margin between the Premier League points and the disciplinary points which Arsenal might accumulate this season. The possibilities are endless - so too are the losses - and, like Leeson, protective custody awaits those who dabble.

FINALLY, another word of thanks goes to Damon Hill, Grand Prix driver and BBC Sports Personality of 1994, who last week was fined and banned by magistrates for doing what was for him a modest "ton" on the M40 in Oxfordshire. For the past 40 years any driver brought to a halt by the flashing blue lamp has usually had to put up with the traditional opening gambit: "Who do we think we are, sir, Stirling Moss?" Now, at last, a new name will be on the lips of the boys in the day-glo jackets as we wind down our windows.