When Godolphin trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni emerged from the offices of the British Horseracing Authority on High Holburn Street in London, he was greeted by an enormous mob of photographers and reporters, the size of which was on par with a mid-level movie star sighting in the U.S. At the time in 2013, Al Zarooni was facing allegations that he had administered steroids to multiple horses in his care — allegations which eventually led to an eight-year ban by the BHA.
The story became mainstream news all over Britain and the world because of the shock value of the accusations and the name recognition of Godolphin, and it came on the heels of two previous tough media years for British racing. The 2011 and 2012 editions of the famous Grand National steeplechase race each saw two fatalities, drawing criticism from media and animal rights groups in the United Kingdom and beyond. Despite that backdrop, British racing just had one of its biggest years on record for on-track attendance, finishing 2015 as the third most-attended sport in the country.
Robin Mounsey, media manager for the British Horseracing Authority, looks back on the Al Zarooni allegations as a critical period in press relations for the country's regulatory body. (Mounsey actually appears in the background of a few of the photos of Al Zarooni, trying to clear a path for the trainer to get to his car after the disciplinary hearing he attended in connection with the steroid charges.)
“It wasn't a huge surprise to us that not just Britain's, but the world's, media really focused on that. That was a story that transcended racing,” said Mounsey. “In Britain, we are a nation of horse lovers. People in Britain need to know that the horses we use for sport or for work are being looked after. I think generally, that is understood about British racing, but that isn't to say that it's unanimously accepted.”
The press's attention on the Grand National fatalities were an especially low point, and British horse racing suffered public scrutiny over equine welfare similarly to the U.S. industry's challenges after the New York Times' critical features in 2012. But perhaps unlike the American industry, British racing seems to have recovered—over six million people attended the races in Britain in 2015, marking a 5.3 percent increase over 2014.
One of the reasons for that seems to be the BHA's long-standing relationship with animal welfare groups in Britain. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and World Horse Welfare work in an advisory capacity with the BHA. David Muir, RSPCA equine consultant, said his goals are driven by practicality.
“You have to get in there and get your hands dirty if you want to get the best deal for the racehorse. It's no good just sitting back and giving rhetoric on this, that, and the other,” said Muir. “We take a pragmatic view of racing which is that it exists, and we have to work within it for the benefit of the racehorse.”
Muir is a former mounted police officer and relies on data, scientific research, and on-site examinations at Britain's racetracks to make suggestions to improve equine safety. He said he believes those recommendations are well-received. Historically, the areas of greatest concern for the British public have been risk of injury during racing (especially in steeplechase races), whip use, and aftercare. Suggestions by Muir and the RSPCA guided jump redesign, which Mounsey credits with the Grand National's fatality-free record from 2013 onward. RSPCA and BHA are continuing long-running efforts to improve regulations guiding whip use, and their joint efforts resulted in the padded whips now used on racetracks.
“What I try to do is approach it in a pragmatic and positive manner rather than a negative. I'm not trying to stop racing, I'm trying to look specifically at the welfare of the racehorse,” said Muir. “We don't always see eye to eye [with racing officials] of course, but we maintain a strong dialogue where we can sit round the table, and rather than throw things at each other, what I try to do is evidence anything that I wish to be changed.”
There are animal rights groups in the United Kingdom, as in the United States, which periodically call for an end to horse racing. Mounsey said that one in particular, Animal Aid, has recently gotten cleverer about its tactics, releasing reports that are seemingly aimed at policy reform rather than an outright ban, but the group's actual mission has not changed.
“They want to raise themselves in profile—they are not a charity,” Mounsey pointed out, noting that Animal Aid was similar in many regards, to the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “And they want to ultimately ban horse racing. When they're positioned by media as an animal welfare organization, they don't correct it. They try to manipulate government as well.”
Muir believes the British public is likely not actively concerned about welfare in the racing business, and Mounsey agrees that racing's public perception issues are more a matter of underlying, outdated misconceptions about the treatment of horses that are dredged up when a high-profile breakdown or drug issue is reported. (For example, some people may still believe that any horse with a broken leg is shot, not having heard about the advances in veterinary technology over the past several decades.) Besides its own press relations, the BHA has created an education program called “The Horse Comes First,” which aims to help horsemen and other insiders better communicate with the public to address those misconceptions about welfare.
Mounsey believes that part of the industry's turnaround was aided by the level of trust the media has in the BHA and other regulators. Muir also feels comfortable with his organization's reputation with the press, although that may be due in part to his role as an independent advisor.
“I try to produce a balanced view, rather than take sides,” said Muir. “I look at something and give my own opinion on how I feel. By having done that, I tend to get listened to.”
When it comes to educating the public and building media relationships in the United States, Mounsey had an important piece of advice for regulators and public relations experts in America: Be honest.
“Transparency is absolutely essential,” he said. “The major threat to your reputation is if you're not viewed as open and transparent. All the time, our mantra is 'Openness and transparency.' Now, we are still working on it—there will always be that gap between what our media want and what we can provide them.”
Another important point: welcome challenges from the media.
“We tend to find that on these major issues we get a balanced reporting from our media,” said Mounsey. “They will take on board what we say; they'll process it and they'll use it, but they won't leave it at that. It's so important that regulating bodies are challenged by the media, to appropriate levels. Actually, when people stop challenging us, and stop writing about it in the media, that would be more of a concern to us.”
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