Trainer welfare - what can be done to help trainers combat 'trolling' online?
By Lissa Oliver
Cyberbullying is something we’re all aware of but generally only associate with teenagers on Facebook or celebrities being attacked on Twitter. Not surprisingly, recent studies in the United States have linked it to poor sleep and depression, so it’s not to be taken so lightly.
With modern trainers needing a more public face and social media presence, online abuse or ‘trolling’, as it’s known, is quietly creeping into the racing industry and threatens to become racing’s dirtiest secret. While it’s not yet prevalent, complaints are beginning to filter through, and it’s therefore worth familiarising yourself with how to deal with the issue.
Trolling and cyberbullying are two slightly different problems—cyberbullying being more personal and the targeting of a victim, usually by someone known to the victim. This can be particularly hurtful as it will involve direct personal insults, and the bully may feed off the victim’s fears and weaknesses.
Trolling is more general online abuse, like strangers who simply want to get a reaction from the online community. They crave attention, good or bad. The more their victim engages with them, the more hateful comments they will post.
The important thing to remember is that if you experience trolling or cyberbullying, it is not your fault. You did not deserve to be targeted. Do not allow what happened to you define you as a person.
Jockey Alan Lee pointed out a similar observation during the short JETS (Jockeys Education & Training Scheme) information film “Resilience”, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of it. It is important for us to recognise self-worth. The mistake for jockeys and trainers is often in basing our sense of self-worth on the performance of our horse, when in fact we should distance ourselves from racecourse results and recognise that our self-worth is measured by how we are as a person and how we behave as a partner, as a parent, as an employer or as an employee. As Lee warned, losing a race should hurt and will hurt, but only for about ten minutes. After that, move on and move forward.
Abuse need not only be online. Trainer Conny Whitfield has suffered first-hand experience of personal abuse at a German racecourse. As her horse was led out for its race, one of the syndicate members enquired of its chances. She suggested that with a fair run, it could be involved in the finish. As it was, the saddle slipped and although involved in the finish, her horse was beaten two lengths by the winner.
Sadly, Conny was then subjected to alarming abuse by the syndicate member in the very public surroundings of the unsaddling area. To make matters worse, she was in the company of her husband and very young daughter, who naturally found it distressing and was close to tears.
“He told me I was too stupid to saddle a horse and as a result he had lost €500”, Conny relates. Among other abuse, he threatened that the horse would leave her yard. Thankfully, it was the irate punter who left and, while the horse remains with her, the punter is no longer with the syndicate.
“It left me dreadfully depressed for days afterwards”, Conny admits. “I’m OK now, but it wasn’t a nice experience to have on a packed racecourse, where all sane people know that we strive to do our best”.
It seems obvious to us that we arrive at the races wanting to win, but a misconception of malpractice still haunts our sport. And even if most racegoers are aware of integrity and desire to succeed, as Irish trainer John McConnell points out, “punters and even owners have a strange perception that we all know when our horse is going to win”!
He has had some experience of online abuse, but admits that jockeys probably get a lot more abuse than trainers. “Most of it comes from guys just talking out of their pocket, and the sensible thing is to ignore it”, he says. “I’ve had a little tiny bit of it, which I found quite amusing, actually! I had a winner at Hamilton and received an email calling me a cheating scumbag. I’d just been reading Mick Channon’s autobiography and he’d shown a few offensive tweets he’d received and there was my man among them! I got quite a kick out of it, that I was up there on a par with Mick Channon”!
Michael Grassick of the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association reports, “I’ve had one complaint in the last two years and that wasn’t serious abusiveness. My advice is just to keep away from social media. If an owner wants to find you, they’ll find you. You can afford to come offline if you need to. The right people always know how to get in touch”. Criquette Head-Maarek shares Grassick’s view. “There is always a risk with social media”, she agrees. “If a trainer is not on social media, then there is no problem”.
Abuse does not always stem from losing punters, and social media can sometimes be used as a tool in defence, as Ger Lyons demonstrated on Twitter recently. When comedian Ricky Gervais attacked the welfare of the racehorse following the Grand National, Lyons had a simple response: “visit my yard”. This is also a policy sometimes adopted by Jamie Osborne, and it’s possible that educating critics, rather than arguing fruitlessly, could be a more positive solution. Clearly with more vicious personal attacks, it is not the answer, however.
“I will sometimes reply to social media insults. It very much depends on my mood at the time and what is said and how it has been said, and whether the person making the remark has any credibility”, Osborne says. “These days we must accept that everybody has an opinion and everyone can voice their opinion. If it is constructive then I’ve no problem at all, and if they are just confused I will politely correct them. It’s when the comments become insulting that it creates a problem. I should ignore them, but often I find it hard to do so, so I will often reply publicly, simply to close the curtain for being insulting, which is unnecessary.
“There is a school of thought on the worldwide web that trainers and jockeys almost know the result before the race. Those who believe that to be the case don’t know the details of the many infinite things that may occur in the days leading up to a race that may affect the result. We are talking about half a tonne of strong-willed animal being asked to race against several other half-tonne strong-willed animals and sometimes we are at the mercy of circumstances outside our control. Because of this, there is no absolute in racing, but some less-informed people on the worldwide web believe in that absolute and feel it necessary to insult those of us involved. I should ignore them, but I don’t.
“Sometimes on Twitter I re-tweet without a comment, which makes them look stupid. If I feel strongly enough I’ll rip them apart! Luckily, I’m not sensitive, and a part of me finds it mildly amusing; and I enjoy starting an argument! It will never be eradicated because there’s one born every day”. Some who are somewhat lacking in intelligence find the need to publicly display their lack of intelligence, and we should feel rather sorry for them.
“I did see Ger Lyons’ invitation to Ricky Gervais, and I have done that a few times. I always find it shuts the really gobby ones up! I’ve had some very nice people come to the yard and they have helped, but the really insulting ones never reply. An invitation frightens them away completely. I think they are afraid of being found out and proved wrong”. Osborne sums it up perfectly when he concludes, “I don’t have to be on Twitter, but I enjoy it”!
Vicious trolling is becoming a growing concern in Britain…
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