News from the European Mediterranean Horseracing Federation 2019 General Assembly

News from the European Mediteranean Horseracing Federation 2019 General Assembly      To many, Norway is the land of the midnight sun or that of the Northern Lights. But to the race-fan, these meteorological mysteries are incidental—Norway is, first and foremost, home to that enigma, the Whip-less Race.  This year, the EMHF’s General Assembly ‘roadshow’ returned to Scandinavia, where the Norwegian Jockey Club hosted our meeting at the country’s sole thoroughbred racetrack, Ovrevoll, after which delegates were privileged to experience the joyous and colourful processions of Norway’s Constitution Day and also witness firsthand the running of a full card without crops—of which more later.  Our meeting broke fresh ground in a number of ways. For the first time, the press was represented, and a number of commercial enterprises (Flair - manufacturers of Nasal Strips, RASLAB - international distributors of racing data and rights, and Equine Medirecord, who supply veterinary compliance software) joined the social programme and mingled with the administrators. The number of presentations was also increased, from which it was made apparent to everyone, if we did not know it before, that the range of threats we face as a sport is diverse indeed.   Illegal Betting   Amongst these threats is one which to date has had far greater impact in Asia, but whose tentacles are increasingly taking Europe into their grasp. The enemy is illegal betting, on which Brant Dunshea, Chief Regulatory Officer of British Horseracing Authority, gave a presentation. Recently co-opted to bring a European perspective to a task-force set up by the EMHF’s equivalent in Asia—the Asian Racing Federation—Dunshea was shocked at the sheer size of the problem.  Defining ‘illegal betting’ as including betting which takes place in an unregulated environment, (e.g., an off-shore operation which was contributing nothing to the sport and was under the regulatory control of neither government nor racing authority), he presented figures which showed that illegal betting in six Asian countries—predominantly using the betting exchange model—was vast in scale; was increasing faster than its legal equivalent; was funding criminal activities including through money laundering; attracted disproportionately higher rates of problem gambling; was poorly understood by governments and racing authorities and was presenting new challenges for regulators in relation to dealing with race corruption. A decrease in the number of suspicious betting investigations on British betting exchanges had been experienced. It now seemed likely that some of this activity had simply shifted to the illegal and unregulated markets.  This is an issue that Europe cannot afford to ignore. The British Horseracing Authority has committed to replicate the Asian research which will seek to quantify the scale of betting on British racing across illegal and unregulated platforms; and Dunshea took the opportunity to seek other volunteers from other EMHF countries to join in this effort. The task-force aims to produce a plan of best practice to identify and tackle this problem for the use of racing authorities.  Dunshea pointed to the salutary conclusion that increasing regulation and taxation of the legal market was not necessarily the answer to the problem and risked the unintended consequence of causing punters to migrate to illegal markets, with their lower margins and (for many countries) a wider and more attractive range of available betting options. Key in the battle will be to engage governments in this discussion, ensure their understanding of the scale of the problem and the interconnectivity between policies in regard to legal betting and the propensity to bet through illegal channels, and try to find a balanced tax burden, alongside sufficient laws and law enforcement effort, to snuff out this noxious menace.   Gene Doping   Gene doping is no longer something from the realms of science fiction but is practiced today. Simon Cooper, co-chair of the European and African Stud Book Committee explained: “DNA can be inserted, substituted, deleted any number of ways—a bit like cut-and-paste on your computer. Gene editing kits can be bought on the internet”. He gave a salutary example of its potential effects. “Mice normally will run for about 800 metres before they’ve had enough. After some mice were injected, in an experiment in Australia, with the stamina protein PEPCK, and genetically manipulated, they ran six kilometres”. The potential to inflict great damage on the sport of horseracing is obvious, and we should be grateful that the state of vigilance among the international racing and breeding authorities is high, with excellent work particularly being carried out in Japan as well as Australia. There is no evidence of nefarious gene doping of racehorses to date—and indeed no belief that it has—but part of the problem is that we cannot say unequivocally that it has not happened, because there is as yet no test to determine whether or not a horse has been subjected to this technique. This is the main focus of research, which will, if and once successful, be made available to Stud Books, as gatekeepers of the breed and racing authorities around the world. “Once DNA is changed, those changes are passed on”, added Cooper, so the more time that passes before detection, the greater the problem. Prevention, rather than retrospective identification, must therefore be the aim. It is believed that the most likely point at which genetic engineering would be carried out on a horse would be between conception and birth. A takeaway message from Cooper was that the racing world should shout loudly and clearly that its authorities have anticipated, and are prepared for, gene doping. Making those who would seek to cheat aware of this fact should, in and of itself, dissuade them from so doing and thereby reduce the risks of this nightmare ever becoming a reality.   Jockeys’ Mental Health   A further problem becoming increasingly evident is the vulnerability of our jockeys to mental health issues. Denis Egan, chief executive of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, chairs a committee and biennial global conference under the umbrella of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, which deals with the health, safety and welfare of jockeys, and aims to raise awareness of these issues, harmonise standards in regard to such things as helmets and safety vests, and share information and research findings. One of the achievements of the conferences has been to take stock of the many independent research projects that take place around the world. “There’s now a greater awareness of what each country’s doing, and we’re working together to ensure that our limited resources are spent wisely”, said Egan. Topics on which much work has been done include how starvation and dehydration (the main ways in which jockeys ensure they make weight) impair jockeys’ musculoskeletal and physiological function and affect bone density, the long-term effects of concussion and analysis of falls and the specific types and locations of injuries sustained, and on devising strategies to address these issues.  In his presentation, Egan explained that the growing body of research into retired sportspeople was of relevance to jockeys past and present and to their racing administrators. He cited cases in the USA in which retired American football players who had suffered dementia in later life had sued the NFL. It was critical, both for the health of jockeys and as a defence against such legal action, for racing authorities to have a protocol for concussion in place.  As well as their long-term mental health, jockeys’ current mental well-being has also been identified, in recent studies both in Britain and Ireland, as a major issue. The headline figure from a British Horseracing Authority-commissioned study by John Moores University was that no fewer than 86.67% of jockeys in Britain were currently experiencing stress, anxiety or depression or had done so in the past twelve months. Job security, and its link to injury, and the prevalence of abuse of riders through social media, were identified as two key factors in this. Jockeys tend not to access support because of the need to feel ‘strong’ in front of their peers. The research recommended that consideration be given to such things as mandatory breaks for jockeys, their working hours and examining further the critical role played by jockeys’ valets and physios. “As a sport, we have an obligation to work with riders to assist them in tackling these issues”, Egan concluded.   ePassports for Horses      Not all racing’s developments are defences against external threats. Simon Cooper also presented on the future face of horse identification. Technology has superseded traditional forms of identification documentation and the manner in which Stud Books operate. Digital data collection, illustration and interrogation provide many efficiencies, opportunities and improved security for the benefit of users, whether they be breeders, trainers, veterinarians or administrators. In the  General Stud Book  (i.e., the combined stud book for British and Irish Thoroughbreds, of which Cooper is director), for example, all breeding registrations can now be undertaken online, and development has now advanced towards an ePassport. Such passports would encompass everything that the current passports include, but would also boast GPS to ensure the traceability of the horse, mechanisms for the recording and validation of vaccinations in real time, checks to ensure that horses cannot run if not properly vaccinated, using technology to allow for pre-clearance race entry and sending notification of expiring vaccinations to trainers and owners, ‘zoomable’ horse markings, validating changes of ownership, etc. Utilising a smartcard and mobile phone, owners or trainers would be able to record self-administered medication; vets would have similar capability for all approved medications.  Cooper envisages that the paper passport would co-exist with ePassports for some years, as various countries adopted the new technology at different speeds. He added that it would be important to ensure that EU legislation allowed of ePassports, and representations were being made to ensure that suitable wording was included in the forthcoming Animal Health Law. The days of the paper horse passport would appear to be numbered.   New Executive Council Member   Following the move of Sweden’s Helena Gartner from its Gallop authority to its trotting equivalent, a vacancy existed on the EMHF’s 9-strong Executive Council. The Norwegian Jockey Club’s Director of Racing, Liv Kristiansen, who had been central to the organisation of the event, was elected to fill this spot – the third woman in a row to be so elected. She will serve a three-year term.   Ovrevoll: Racing Without Whips   Ovrevoll racecourse, though only 10km from Oslo city centre, has a rural, relaxed feel. Its turf track of around 2,000 undulating metres’ circumference, has a choice of two tight bends linking the back and home straights. It is undulating, and the bends are tight. Two finishing posts used to be employed, to maximise the length of the straight, but this was abandoned as the jockeys frequently mistook the first post for the second—a hazard which seems hard to avoid, around the world. But straight sprints are run from distances as short as 900 metres. There is also a dirt/sand track and a little-used cross-country jumps track in the in-field. The racecourse has a 77-year history, and like many others, enjoyed a halcyon period in terms of crowd attendance in the post-War years.  The eight-race card we witnessed offered prize money averaging a little over €6,000, with the feature race worth double this. The fixture had attracted decent fields averaging a little under 10 runners. In Norway, half of all runners are foreign-trained—on the day we were there this figure was lower, with the great bulk of the raiders coming from Sweden, and a couple from Denmark. Most of Norway’s horses-in-training are trained at the track. Norwegian-breds represented some 20% of the runners – in line with overall figures - with half of the total foaled in Scandinavia generally. Of the other half, there was good representation of British-, Irish-, French- and German-breds.  And what of the whip-less races? At our General Assembly, a final presentation had been from Hans Petter Eriksen, former managing director of the Norwegian Jockey Club, who explained the history of Norway’s whip rules. In 1986, the Norwegian Government introduced an Animal Welfare Act in which it summarily banned the use, or carrying, of the whip in gallop and trotting races. After some negotiation, the government allowed riders to carry a short whip, for safety purposes only, provided jockeys at all times kept both hands on the reins and did not use the reins as a substitute for the whip. This short whip could only be used in dangerous situations. Norway also stood apart from other countries in that penalties for misuse did not only result in fines and suspensions for the jockey but also in the disqualification of the horse. A few years, this was watered down: the rule was changed to stipulate that the horse ‘may’ be disqualified—wording that remains today. After some two decades of the operation of these rules, in 2009, it was concluded that there was no necessity to carry the whip for safety reasons and it was withdrawn altogether, other than in two-year-old and jumps races.  Eriksen explained that no accidents had occurred in the past decade, under these whip-less rules, which could be attributed to their absence. Incidents of interference had declined and the favourites’ strike-rate mirrored international norms. Importantly, the resultant spectacle was more acceptable to the general public and sponsors alike.  To my eyes, at Ovrevoll that evening, nothing was lost through the absence of the whip. Runners generally ran straight, and the evening was free of enquiries and objections, save for one rider receiving a three-day ban for over-use of the reins, as it were. The races were competitive and the finishes hard fought. And the expert opinion of Phil Smith, former senior handicapper for the BHA and co-chair of the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings Committee, was telling: “I’ve seen no race today which would have been won by a different horse, had whips been used”, he concluded.

By Paull Khan, PhD.

To many, Norway is the land of the midnight sun or that of the Northern Lights. But to the race-fan, these meteorological mysteries are incidental—Norway is, first and foremost, home to that enigma, the Whip-less Race.

This year, the EMHF’s General Assembly ‘roadshow’ returned to Scandinavia, where the Norwegian Jockey Club hosted our meeting at the country’s sole thoroughbred racetrack, Ovrevoll, after which delegates were privileged to experience the joyous and colourful processions of Norway’s Constitution Day and also witness firsthand the running of a full card without crops—of which more later.

Our meeting broke fresh ground in a number of ways. For the first time, the press was represented, and a number of commercial enterprises (Flair - manufacturers of Nasal Strips, RASLAB - international distributors of racing data and rights, and Equine Medirecord, who supply veterinary compliance software) joined the social programme and mingled with the administrators. The number of presentations was also increased, from which it was made apparent to everyone, if we did not know it before, that the range of threats we face as a sport is diverse indeed. 

Illegal Betting

Amongst these threats is one which to date has had far greater impact in Asia, but whose tentacles are increasingly taking Europe into their grasp. The enemy is illegal betting, on which Brant Dunshea, Chief Regulatory Officer of British Horseracing Authority, gave a presentation. Recently co-opted to bring a European perspective to a task-force set up by the EMHF’s equivalent in Asia—the Asian Racing Federation—Dunshea was shocked at the sheer size of the problem.

Defining ‘illegal betting’ as including betting which takes place in an unregulated environment, (e.g., an off-shore operation which was contributing nothing to the sport and was under the regulatory control of neither government nor racing authority), he presented figures which showed that illegal betting in six Asian countries—predominantly using the betting exchange model—was vast in scale; was increasing faster than its legal equivalent; was funding criminal activities including through money laundering; attracted disproportionately higher rates of problem gambling; was poorly understood by governments and racing authorities and was presenting new challenges for regulators in relation to dealing with race corruption. A decrease in the number of suspicious betting investigations on British betting exchanges had been experienced. It now seemed likely that some of this activity had simply shifted to the illegal and unregulated markets.

This is an issue that Europe cannot afford to ignore. The British Horseracing Authority has committed to replicate the Asian research which will seek to quantify the scale of betting on British racing across illegal and unregulated platforms; and Dunshea took the opportunity to seek other volunteers from other EMHF countries to join in this effort. The task-force aims to produce a plan of best practice to identify and tackle this problem for the use of racing authorities.

Liv Kristiansen, Racing Director of the Norwegian Jockey Club, has been elected to the EMHF's Executive Council.

Liv Kristiansen, Racing Director of the Norwegian Jockey Club, has been elected to the EMHF's Executive Council.

Dunshea pointed to the salutary conclusion that increasing regulation and taxation of the legal market was not necessarily the answer to the problem and risked the unintended consequence of causing punters to migrate to illegal markets, with their lower margins and (for many countries) a wider and more attractive range of available betting options. Key in the battle will be to engage governments in this discussion, ensure their understanding of the scale of the problem and the interconnectivity between policies in regard to legal betting and the propensity to bet through illegal channels, and try to find a balanced tax burden, alongside sufficient laws and law enforcement effort, to snuff out this noxious menace.

Gene Doping

Gene doping is no longer something from the realms of science fiction but is practiced today. Simon Cooper, co-chair of the European and African Stud Book Committee explained: “DNA can be inserted, substituted, deleted any number of ways—a bit like cut-and-paste on your computer. Gene editing kits can be bought on the internet”. He gave a salutary example of its potential effects. “Mice normally will run for about 800 metres before they’ve had enough. After some mice were injected, in an experiment in Australia, with the stamina protein PEPCK, and genetically manipulated, they ran six kilometres”. The potential to inflict great damage on the sport of horseracing is obvious, and we should be grateful that the state of vigilance among the international racing and breeding authorities is high, with excellent work particularly being carried out in Japan as well as Australia. There is no evidence of nefarious gene doping of racehorses to date—and indeed no belief that it has—but part of the problem is that we cannot say unequivocally that it has not happened, because there is as yet no test to determine whether or not a horse has been subjected to this technique. This is the main focus of research, which will, if and once successful, be made available to Stud Books, as gatekeepers of the breed and racing authorities around the world. “Once DNA is changed, those changes are passed on”, added Cooper, so the more time that passes before detection, the greater the problem. Prevention, rather than retrospective identification, must therefore be the aim. It is believed that the most likely point at which genetic engineering would be carried out on a horse would be between conception and birth. A takeaway message from Cooper was that the racing world should shout loudly and clearly that its authorities have anticipated, and are prepared for, gene doping. Making those who would seek to cheat aware of this fact should, in and of itself, dissuade them from so doing and thereby reduce the risks of this nightmare ever becoming a reality. 

Jockeys’ Mental Health…

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