Sunday Times Sport – Equine Flu!

When can too much welfare be a worrying thing? Where does ‘erring on the side of caution’ lead to in the management of dangerous sports – or for that matter in life itself? That, more than the ending of this year’s Cheltenham Festival, is the threat posed by the BHA’s heavyweight reaction to the latest outbreak of equine flu.

Of course they were to be damned if they did and damned if they didn’t and initially there was an overwhelmingly positive welcome to the authority’s decisive action on Wednesday night to suspend racing first to the next day and then until at least mid-next week. They had of course taken extensive veterinary advice but quite soon there were private suggestions that they were operating on a very worst case scenario and on Friday afternoon one of the big beasts broke cover.

Piet Ramzan is anything but an ignorant hillbilly, being a partner in the leading Newmarket practice Rossdales, author of the definitive The Racehorse – A Veterinary Manual, and last year a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Describing himself as a ‘clinician at the coal face’ he followed up a tweet containing the memorable line “it’s equine flu not ebola” by pointing out that all racehorses are vaccinated, equine flu is endemic and “shutting down racing for a day, or even a month won’t prevent it happening.”

Faced with this the BHA have stuck to their own veterinary guns but worthy and well received though their pronouncements about horse welfare have been there is an element that could be in danger of self-defeating.  For at times they seem to conflate ‘welfare’ into ‘safety’ and on to the removal of ‘risk’ which avoids the fact that racing, in particular jump racing will always be a very dangerous game. That is part of its attraction to both participant and viewer alike. It is why those of us involved have a duty to prepare both human and equine players in the most thorough way possible.

This is particularly true of the horses. For them we have the double responsibility of having chosen their path but we should never pretend that they, like the jockeys, are not galloping into danger or that, if their limbs fracture they, unlike their riders, may well have euthanasia as the kindest option. These are very difficult questions but they won’t go away by us wincing at the very mention of risk and wishing for that most hopeless of oxymorons, a ‘safe Grand National’.

But while pondering these things and not underestimating the hassle and cost for all concerned with the current equine flu ‘swab fest’, unhappier news hit us on Friday than the loss of a few days midwinter racing. A week ago Hugh McIlvanney left us and now the incomparable Albert Finney has gone to join him at the great racetrack in the sky.

It hurts in this corner because of all the undeserved slices of luck to come my way one of the greatest was to have Hugh McIlvanney as scriptwriter and Albert Finney as narrator when I produced the Mill Reef film ‘Something To Brighten The Morning’ soon after the end of what is laughingly described as my ‘riding career’.

Hugh was Hugh, which means that the words when they came were magnificent but getting them usually involved a manhunt hardly helped in this case when he pushed off to Vietnam during his unhappy spell on the Daily Express. Albert on the other hand was quite wonderful. He was at the height of his fame – the only thing I had ever run was the Oxford University Drag Hunt – yet for the price of a lunch he gave us a whole day of his time, suffered our mistakes and humoured us through those exasperating final stages when tempers fray.

He and his then wife Anouk Aimee took a gang of us in their open topped Range Rover to Newbury and he loved to tell of his father ‘Honest Albert’ and the illegal betting shop in their backyard in Salford. In his London flat Albert proudly displayed the board reading : Albert Finney – Civility and Prompt Payment under which his Dad traded at Haydock and other courses in the north.

You can still find the film on DVD. Hugh’s words are marvellous but Albert’s reading makes them even more special. For while they can be exquisitely sensitive they are remain redolent of the essential combative earthiness that makes life worth living . A final lesson from ‘Honest Albert’?

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