Recently, the spotlight has been on racing in relation to its relative lack of diversity compared with other sports. There have been some somewhat defensive reactions to Rishi Persad’s stated view (that racing is not racially diverse enough) but ultimately he is right. However, rather than causing divisions these discussions should really provoke thought, debate and ultimately, solid solutions. Instead of the view that ‘racing has never really appealed to BAME communities’, we should be asking ‘how can racing appeal to an audience more representative of today's society?’ and ‘what do we need to do to improve its appeal?’.
The recent debate got me thinking about a good friend of mine. A South Londoner of black African descent, he grew up on a council estate where not many people had access to horse racing events. We became friendly in London and he was soon dragged along to Newmarket, inevitably ending up in my favourite Chinese restaurant. Here, we got chatting to Peter Chapple-Hyam, one of the great characters of our racing game. Peter enquired if my friend might like to own a horse with him, and with a hearty laugh my friend responded – ‘you are having a bubble ain’t ya?! I work in IT Support!’. We laughed about it for ages and, funnily enough he did end up owning a horse, albeit 5% of a slow one…
One of the major problems racing has is that people make the same assumption as my friend; that they could not possibly own a horse unless they are very wealthy. But by his own admission, my friend has always felt welcomed by people in racing and never discriminated against, despite not being a multi-millionaire or fitting the stereotypical white/middle class profile of a racehorse owner. So much so that he felt comfortable having his Stag do at Newmarket and has subsequently visited Kempton, Sandown and Lingfield with his family; despite being a football fanatic, he is now a lifelong racing fan.
This story makes me consider - how does racing make people aware it is an accessible sport that is available to all? If you take the traditional path with advertising that racing so often adopts (promoting the sport to people who are already interested in it), you will attract more regular racing enthusiasts but do little to invite a new audience… ITV it has to be said has made a big effort to introduce racing to and engage with those who are not familiar with the sport.
I was on a train coming back from Royal Ascot and a discussion started about how expensive it was to own a racehorse. Yes I said, it is true if you own 100% of a horse but there are also racing clubs and syndicates and you can get involved for very little money. A lot had not been racing before or were going for the first time and I told them about 3 or 4 racing clubs. Why at big meetings, at the train stations can there not be pamphlets people can pick up whilst they queue for trains, with a list of all racing clubs and syndicates available to the public. Or just available at any time?
How could we approach things differently? In response to Rishi’s view that there is not enough diversity amongst the training ranks, a ‘blue sky thinking’ idea could be for him to set up a scholarship fund. In fact, the musical artist Stormzy has done something similar in the education of teenagers by linking up with Cambridge University and offering exactly this. The fund could ensure one lucky person each year (or lucky people) would get to work at racing yards in order to gain experience and put them on the path to training.
Regardless of ethnicity or nationality, it is extremely difficult for many people across all walks of life who are hoping to train horses, particularly if they do not have financial backing. Another pipedream is that, should the Newmarket all-weather track ever be built it would be fantastic if the Jockey Club could subsidise shared barns alongside it in order to help out fledgling trainers with small numbers of horses. These would allow them to work for others too if necessary and also to use the training grounds outside of peak hours. The rules would have to change to allow it but it is a format that could make the profession more accessible to a lot more people. It would give a lot more young people starting out in racing some hope, rather than thinking that training racehorses is but an impossible dream…
Ultimately, action is what is needed in order to welcome underrepresented ethnic groups into our sport and show them they can be involved. Rome was not built in a day, but it can be built if the bricks are put carefully in place.
I often hear racing is ‘the greatest game and the worst game’ and ultimately it will never appeal to everyone. However, I can guarantee that if racing specifically targets under-represented communities via education and engagement the landscape will be very different in twenty years. There have already been some examples of this, with the Ebony Horse Club becoming more and more involved in the racing community and jockeys getting involved with ‘racing to school’. We just need more of this, as the more popular a sport, the more it will thrive. If racing can broaden its appeal and increase its diversity then the sport will only benefit.