‘We must look out and encourage people to look in’. A strong message from former trainer, now BHA Director of Equine Health and Welfare, James Given ahead of the inaugural National Racehorse Week
I had an idea when I was on the board of Market Rasen around ten years ago, inspired by what Sport Relief achieved.
We talk a lot about racing being the second-most watched sport in the UK, yet we do nothing with this apart from push our chests out and say look at us, look how good we are. We never then justify ourselves to society. We are good at looking after ourselves internally, but we can’t just expect the world to look at us and say carry on.
My idea to challenge to the industry is to anyone who makes a few quid out of it, whether as a farrier, feed merchant or handicapper is to just do one thing a year for charity. We could then all put our money, big or small as a donation into a pot and racing PLC will choose a charity to support. National Racehorse Week is part of the work to show that we are part of society.
A career crossroads brought me to racing
I first got into racing in my late 20’s. I was working in a veterinary practice in west Yorkshire and had indulged my lifetime ambition to learn to ride properly. I had started eventing and show jumping with a certain degree of success, getting to National finals. I had also fallen a little out of love with the career and had been sent out on a call one day to test cattle for TB, which is an awful job.
I came back into the practice and the nurses were having a cup of coffee and I just said it: ‘that’s it, I’m going to get myself a new job, pass me the veterinary record’. I opened up the paper and the first thing I saw was a job with Mark Johnston as his assistant and resident vet. I never thought I’d get the job, but I did. I enjoyed racing and occasionally watched it in the past on the TV but it soon took over and I loved it.
After three years with Mark, I won the Alex Scott scholarship and spent some time in Dubai after which I wondered what to do next. My mum asked what’s the worst that can happen – have a go. So, on November the 28th, 1998 – a moment which is seared in my mind – I realised my entire life was in two horse boxes and one car travelling down the M1. This was a very sobering moment. I went to Wolverhampton where I trained for five months and then moved to where I now live, in rural Lincolnshire.
The good horses and special owners
My training career ran from November 1998 until January 2021 and my highlights have to include winning The Ebor with Hugs Dancer. Dandino’s Royal Ascot win was very special and then doing a double in the Bosphorus Cup with Indian Days. Taking Hugs Dancer to the Melbourne Cup was an amazing experience, while being invited to Windsor Castle for lunch and sitting next to The Queen was just the most extraordinary moment. To this day, I still question whether that happened.
I do miss training the good horses. I miss the planning, plotting and thinking. I had a lovely horse who won the Chester Cup first time out. When we got to Australia and they were looking at his form for the year they couldn’t believe that he had won over 2 1/4 miles first time out. Professionally, this was very pleasing and meant we had done our job right. The horse was fit, entered in a hard race and won it. I also miss the team.
People can be so rewarding and so challenging in different ways. I don’t miss chasing money; I finally got my last payment, which was due in January in June. I don’t miss the disappointment, not only your own but other people’s disappointment. It wears you out.
As for my staff, Lee Vickers has gone on to be an instructor at the National Horseracing College, while some have stayed on at the yard and others have decided to leave the sport. I had three people who had worked for me for 20 years. I miss my owners. I hadn’t had a good horse for a number of years and while there is nothing wrong with Southwell, when the highlight of the year is having a winner at Southwell on a wet Wednesday in comparison to having a winner at Royal Ascot, I realised the gloss had gone out the game. I remember in my very early days of training I was in the trainer’s room at Doncaster. Reg Hollinshead had a winner. I was fresh-eyed and went up to him said well done and asked if he still enjoyed it. ‘Oh no, just relieved,’ was what he offered up. This is so often where you end up.
I remember the last win I enjoyed was at the Shergar Cup in 2019 and that’s the last time I felt really overjoyed. The owners don’t have children and had a care dog. We got permission from Ascot to bring Tilly to the paddock and the owner and dog were interviewed. When the horse won the owners said it was the happiest day of their lives and I felt like I had made a real difference. This was the last time I felt the joy as opposed to Reg’s relief.
Stepping into a BHA role
I had been asked to become a Trustee at the British Racing School a good few years ago and when the Centre for Racehorse Studies was set up – a programme run by the BHA, that conducts studies to provide research around medication use in horses – Tim Morris who was in my current job co-opted me into helping to persuade the other Trustees to allow it to locate at the School. It is fully regulated and needs a licence from the Home Office.
Tim set up the BHA Ethics Committee and as a result of my unique position on the Trustees’ Board, I became a founding member of the ethics committee and ended up chairing it later on. This then led to trainers’ representative Rupert Arnold calling me up three years ago to ask me to represent them on a new welfare board being created. I accepted and the Horse Welfare Board has become a large part of the industry. Being mid-50s, I had time to do something else and learn about it and hopefully go on to make a difference in the job I do now.
Facing up to the challenge
I knew a lot of the raceday teams but not so much the behind-the-scenes people. Coming into the team I realised what a hardworking and passionate group of people they are; it’s extraordinary how hard people work in the BHA, often in difficult circumstances in terms of the emotion and the abuse they sometimes receive. The executive has been fantastic and supportive.
I always knew if welfare news stories broke then they would land on my desk, and I’d have to deal with them. I think being a trainer prepares you for the unexpected, you get to a place where you can focus on what you need to focus on, deal with it, fix it. When you run your own business everyone comes looking to you for an answer and you get used to that sink or swim, pressure points. You can’t curl up in a ball and hope someone else sorts it out.
Racing’s social licence
The social licence encapsulates what we have to do fully. Looking at the Gordon Elliott case and you have animal aid on one side and then a large section of society who are ambivalent about the sport. But on that Monday morning they did care as they had seen a picture of the trainer sat on a dead horse.
One thing I do find frustrating is people who don’t see the threat to our sport. We can’t go on thinking we don’t have to be accountable, and we have to keep reinforcing to the public our social licence. I want to ask them what legacy they want to leave British racing.
We have to explain that there is a risk to the horse, but we are constantly working to minimise this risk. There will always be unexpected risk. Cricketer Phil Hughes got hit on the back of the head, but will we have cricket in 15 years’ time, of course we will. The question is will we have jump racing in 15 years’ time, no one can say categorially yes. It is a challenge.
The Whip and public perception
I don’t want to prejudge what will come from the recent open consultation on use of the whip. It will be interesting to see who has engaged. We have to take into account public perception. We have to protect our core principals and know that life is constantly changing. We have to live with that evolution but manage our change.
Letting down the drawbridge in National Racehorse Week
A measure of success of this week I think is whether we get into mainstream media. I believe there are senior politicians willing to support and that might get a story into the local news. This will start raising the profile of the sport as being a force for good in society. I think it’s a first step for us opening up our doors not drawing up our village drawbridge. We have got to be open and transparent.
If the welfare is wrong, it doesn’t matter how many people make a living from the sport or how much money we put in the exchequer. But we can show we do have very high welfare. One of the things I think is challenging to us is the underlying attitude to racing from mainstream media, for example the BBC currently. They seem to have an editorial issue with horseracing. If we are seen to be more mainstream, then they may have to think, well actually, racing is perhaps okay.