Racing: Board blows its horn over hunting ban

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THE LEVY negotiations loom, betting turnover is threatened by offshore bookies, and the British Horseracing Board's chairman and his deputy are barely on speaking terms. None the less, the BHB still found time yesterday to issue a statement saying that ``in the interests of racing'', it will ``oppose a ban'' on hunting with hounds when the measure is discussed by Parliament.

Such a ban, the BHB claimed, would ``damage racing'', since it would, amongst other things, ``reduce the number of point-to-point venues and meetings'', and thus ``reduce the number of horses and riders reaching the standards required for participation in racing''.

It would also ``limit opportunities for owners and trainers, thus jeopardising their involvement in the sport, and reduce the demand for young bloodstock and horses at the end of their careers''.

This is, of course, nonsense, as even some members of the BHB probably realise. While point-to-pointing was conceived as a means of raising money for local hunts, its popularity is now such that it has grown beyond those origins. Indeed, if released from the burden of handing over its money to the hunts, pointing could flourish as a sport and business in its own right.

The Jockey Club, which also opposes a ban, claimed in a separate statement yesterday that racing and pointing ``have their roots in the hunting field''.

Racing, though, has long since outgrown them, and point-to-pointing should be ready to do the same. The thousands who attend points every week, after all, do so principally to watch the racing, rather than support the hunt.

As for the BHB's claim yesterday that ``a ban on hunting would have an adverse impact on the level of interest in racing as a whole'', this is such a wild notion that you wonder whether the person who came up with it is a resident of planet Earth. The truth is that if hunting were banned tomorrow, racing would continue as it always has done, and no-one, from the BHB right down to the punters in inner-city betting shops who have never seen a stirrup cup in their lives, would notice the difference.

The shame of all this, though, is that the BHB's policy on hunting is not simply nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. A leisure industry which is presumably keen to improve its public image whenever possible is deliberately allying itself with a practice which a vast majority of Britons believe to be barbaric, unnecessary and outdated. It is not a connection which racing needs.

Many racing professionals are keen and vociferous hunters. So too are various members and employees of the BHB and Jockey Club. Their professional duty, though, is to racing, rather than their hobby. It would be far better from racing's point of view for the BHB to state, quite simply, that hunting is nothing to do with us, and thus an issue on which it does not even require a policy.

A second bulletin issued by Portman Square yesterday was rather less controversial, unless you happened to be either Paul Nicholls or Martin Pipe. Both trainers have in recent years exploited an apparent flaw in the weight-for-age scale for steeplechasers, which gives five-year-olds a generous allowance from their elders, particularly between January and March.

Pipe in particular has imported a series of young horses from France, where chasers generally mature more quickly than their British cousins, and campaigned them with great success against older novices. This first two horses home in this year's Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham, Nicholls' Flagship Uberalles and Pipe's Tresor De Mai, were both five-year-olds, in receipt of an 8lb allowance, as was Champleve, the Pipe-trained winner in 1998.

The BHB is not doing away with the allowance altogether - not yet, anyway - but reducing it significantly. In the Arkle, for instance, it will now be 4lb, while a monthly drop of 2lb will be replaced by a twice-monthly reduction of 1lb.

``I suppose they had to do something about it,'' Nicholls said yesterday, ``but at the end of the day it was an allowance open to everybody. I'm glad they have not wiped out the allowance completely as I have one or two horses this season who are due to go chasing and will be five come Cheltenham. But my real view is that a few pounds do not make a lot of difference in those sort of races as jumping is the name of the game whatever the age of the horse.''