As Royal Ascot hosted nearly 50,000 spectators, including the Queen, it was a week that served as a reminder of how brilliant British racing is at its best.
Racing is a sport, an industry, a livelihood and a passion – but for some it also provides a degree of much-needed solace and community.
Once such racing fan is Debbie Matthews, the woman behind the #GoRacingGreen movement which aims to increase inclusivity within the sport.
The initiative was created by Matthews in 2019 after she overcame her anxieties to visit Ascot racecourse and watch Altior win the Clarence House Chase, a prospect she had previously found too overwhelming to consider.
“#GoRacingGreen was founded by accident in January 2019,” she said.
“After following horse racing for two years but only watching on TV due to my social phobias, I managed to get myself to Ascot to see Altior.
“I had already started a blog site called Novice Filly the previous year, writing about how horses had helped my mental health, so I put out a tweet saying I wasn’t going to hide on my sofa that day, but I was going to beat my anxiety and go to Ascot.”
The tweet gained enough publicity to result in Matthews consequently visiting Seven Barrows to meet Altior himself, after which she found herself contacted by others who were also engaged with the sport but were struggling with similar issues.
The creation of #GoRacingGreen followed, and the cause now splits into two strands, the first being the organisation of stable visits for those who can relate to the challenges faced by Matthews, and the second her collaborative work with racecourses to make meetings more inviting to would-be attendees who find the raceday experience overwhelming or difficult to navigate.
“The real practical aim is to get as many people out to racing yards and to the races as possible,” said Matthews.
“These people are not people we need to convert – they are already lovers of our sport, many for as long as they can remember.”
The organisation of stable visits has been well supported by trainers – with Nicky Henderson, Amy Murphy, Jamie Snowden, Phil McEntee, Nick Gifford, Micky Hammond, Kayley Woollacott, Ruth Jefferson, Gary Moore, Eve Johnson Houghton and Martin Smith all opening their yards to welcome members of the community.
In May 2019, bookmaker Unibet also demonstrated its support and began sponsoring the cause – covering Matthews’ expenses for the stable visits, so they could remain free to attendees.
At the racecourse, large crowds, high noise levels and an occasionally frenetic atmosphere can be unsettling for some – but Matthews is determined this should not preclude them from enjoying the sport live if appropriate provisions are made.
Nottingham, Newbury and Chester have all welcomed the opportunity to make racing more inclusive by designating quiet, alcohol-free areas for those who may need them and training staff in how to assist racegoers with autism and sensory conditions, general anxiety disorder and PTSD.
Matthews added: “I offer a package which includes a presentation about accessibility and inclusion, #GoRacingGreen, Dementia Friends and Autism Awareness training and a general overview of social phobias and how these can affect people.
“I also identify a safe and quiet area on the course where people could go to watch the racing, either throughout the whole meeting, or just if they needed a five-minute break somewhere quiet.
“Finally, I write a bespoke sensory guide for each racecourse, identifying everything people may experience at that track on a race day – from the approach to the racecourse, getting through the gates, noises, smells. This gives people vital pre-event knowledge that can offer great reassurances.”
Matthews’ next goal is to complete the process of registering #GoRacingGreen as a charity, a move which will allow for donations and improve the funding mechanism.
The expansion of #GoRacingGreen’s work with racecourses is also a target, with Matthews hoping to reach as many tracks as possible to ensure they are making the best use of their staff and facilities to make racing welcoming to all.
The issues faced by those supported by #GoRacingGreen are broad, but Matthews considers the sport to be the one thing that unites them and has noticed how racing’s community can become a support network for those who are struggling.
“As someone who has only been into racing, and horses in general, for a few years, it is very clear racing is a community,” she said.
“(It’s) a very big, but at the same time very small, community – everyone seems to know everyone, even if through someone else.
“Many people with social phobias, PTSD, low self-esteem, conditions such as Asperger’s, feel that we don’t fit into society – by nature of our challenges we are often loners in a very big world.
“But racing is something that brings us all together. It is something we can all talk about.
“Certainly, through #GoRacingGreen, it offers a social outlet to those of us that would not otherwise socialise.”
The cause continues to grow as more people become aware of Matthews’ work, with the challenges created by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns creating even more need for such a service.
Some may question why such a community should gather within the sport of horse racing as opposed to another more mainstream sector, but Matthews is in no doubt as to what it is that unites #GoRacingGreen followers – a shared love of the horse.
“There is already plenty of evidence about the therapeutic value of the horse in many settings, not just racing,” she said.
“The main reason people in the #GoRacingGreen community go racing is to see the horses.
“They offer something very calming and graceful and seem to have the ability to distract you from the outside world and all of your troubles.
“It’s the horses, without a doubt.”