BHA chair Phelps vows to ‘see things changing’ as racing focuses on diversity improvement

British Horseracing Authority chair Annamarie Phelps believes her sport has been right to avoid “hypocritical” statements, and is instead taking effective steps to bring much-needed improvement in its diversity and inclusion policy.

Phelps, speaking to Sky Sports Racing on the anniversary of the death of George Floyd which sparked international protests, is placing her faith in a joint industry commitment to formalise change.

In Sky’s documentary The Uncomfortable Race, broadcast on Tuesday morning, concerns were voiced by a selection of young people from ethnic-minority backgrounds with aspirations to make their careers in racing.

Callum Helliwell, a former employee of Great British Racing and Goffs UK, was dismayed when there was no direct public response – as in many other sports – from the BHA or other racing industry leaders when the Black Lives Matter movement came to prominence a year ago.

Phelps explains it was a considered decision not to do so, because the sport did not believe it was in position to make a “grandiose statement” in good faith.

She said: “It wasn’t that we didn’t think about it.

“Racing did discuss what we should do in the immediate awful moment a year ago, and it would have been really hypocritical of us I think – at that time – to have said anything enormously public and meaningful about standing alongside our black communities when actually we don’t have very much ethnic diversity in the sport, and we had done probably at that time very little to try to be more inclusive.”

Instead, she believes, telling changes are afoot since.

“I think what the last year has taught us is that there are things we can do,” she added.

“There’s a whole raft of things, at all sorts of different levels, which are much more meaningful to those people, I hope, working in our industry than a grandiose statement which we (would have) had nothing behind at the time.”

Helliwell was, however, among those disappointed that racing did not instigate a public gesture of solidarity with BLM.

He said: “As a black person, if I see a man with a knee on his neck who cannot breathe, being filmed and killed in front of people – again by a police officer, in broad daylight, and racing can just ignore that and continue on like nothing has happened rather than just put in a single bit of acknowledgement … then what on earth are you going to do when something else happens?

People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brighton, sparked by the death of George Floyd
People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brighton, sparked by the death of George Floyd (Aaron Chown/PA)

“What are you going to do for the smaller elements, the ‘micro-aggressions’?

“If you see that, and that’s your first insight into racing, you’d be shocked. You’d (think) not only does the sport not want me here, it doesn’t want me full stop.

“That, to me, is disgusting. That is taking us so far back.”

He is convinced an opportunity was missed.

“The fact that racing fails to acknowledge that hits me harder than anything had hit me before, because it makes me feel like the sport that I love doesn’t care about the person that I am,” he added.

“I think racing has been left behind, left trailing by other sports.

“I really hope racing does pick it up. We’ve not lost completely – it’s not completely over. There is still something that can be done, things can change.”

Phelps is sure of that too, with her fellow administrators’ devotion to the cause as key.

Grand National-winning jockey Rachael Blackmore has helped to break down barriers for women in racing
Grand National-winning jockey Rachael Blackmore has helped to break down barriers for women in racing (Tim Goode/PA)

She said: “The industry commitment is the first step, I suppose, to the whole industry, the whole sport saying for the very first time and very publicly that diversity and inclusion matters.

“Diversity and inclusion is a really important subject for us as a sport, for us as an industry and for our future.

“In a year’s time, I hope we will have developed what is a really important step – to really understand the diversity across the sport, and in particular in relation to people from black communities and ethnic minority communities – which is something we don’t have at the moment.

“I’d like to see us taking a lot more steps to understand, be inclusive and to listen to the people within our organisations from any diverse community and make sure they are able to be themselves when they come into the sport.

“We, and our boards, will be holding each of our organisations accountable to it.

“I do hope we will get much clearer targets for some of these these areas, and you will see things changing.”

She hopes that a vision for a prosperous, inclusive future – in which gender equality and minority representation are dramatically enhanced – will be motivation for all.

“Rather than a stick at the moment, we’re looking at ‘what’s the carrot?’,” said Phelps.

“There’s a huge carrot out there for the industry and the sport.

“It’s not just about opening the door, changing our numbers and percentages, it’s about helping (all) to be their authentic selves and to be comfortable working in our sport and our industry.

“But we’re not there yet, at all. We’re not there on the gender, and we’re certainly not there in terms of cultural diversity.

“I hope that by the time we get through the next two, three, four years we will be looking at an industry population that mirrors the diversity we have in our society.”

Helliwell warns racing must address entrenched, traditional barriers.

“We have nepotism in this industry – rife throughout, and we’re very open about it – people giving jobs to friends and connections,” he said.

“What we need to be doing is people getting these jobs because they’re talented, to be able to interview for them because they’re talented – not be able to interview because they’re a friend of a friend.”

Horses on the gallops at Newmarket
Horses on the gallops at Newmarket (Mike Egerton/PA)

Elijah Michael and Kanane Francis, respectively racing-industry trainees as a lawyer and jockey, also spoke from personal experience to date.

Michael said: “(This) is not to say everyone in horse racing is racist.

“But it is a very white sport in these small pockets around the British and Irish countryside.”

Francis remains optimistic, despite the mixed reception he has found within racing, but would be encouraged if the sport could demonstrate to him that he belongs.

“In racing … they should at least do something to show ‘yes, they do support me’ – even if it’s not big … because it’s really a white-dominated sport,” he said.

“I would love to see, maybe a black trainer – just something to show ‘we’re starting this, and we’re going to make this happen’.”

Francis said he has not always felt universally welcome so far on the Newmarket gallops.

“I have sensed feelings that I might be on my own,” he added.

“Not many people have tried to interact with me, tried to speak to me on the yards I’ve been to.

“Even when I’m riding out, I get the dirtiest looks … you can just see people (thinking) ‘Why are you here? You don’t fit in, you’re not meant to be here’.

“But I just try to keep going with what I want to do, because I want to make these boundaries open up to a lot of other kids like me.”

Phelps vows to fight for return of crowds

British Horseracing Authority chair Annamarie Phelps has promised to do all she can to convince Government crowds should be back on courses before next March.

Phelps described the decision to abandon plans for sporting crowds to return from October 1, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead indicating they may be absent for another six months, as a “devastating” turn of events which has put racing in a “quite perilous state”.

However, in an interview on Sky Sports Racing, she also suggested the projected hiatus until next spring may prove to be a “backstop” measure which can perhaps be brought forward in further discussions with Government.

Racing has so far held two crowd pilot race days, at Doncaster and Warwick this month, before a resurgence in the national infection rate of the global coronavirus pandemic brought a return of stricter measures to try to mitigate its spread.

Phelps said: “It was devastating news, I have to say – not just for those racecourses that had invested and prepared for the pilots … but to have them first of all delayed, and then the news this week, has been tragic.

“It puts us in a really quite perilous state.

“It is going to have a massive impact on the income to racecourses.

“We hope, and are assuming, we’ll be able to carry on behind closed doors throughout all this … but unless we get racegoers back on to racecourses, the losses to the racecourses are going to be an estimate of anything between £2million and £4million a month.

“We think we’ve probably lost £250million to £300million, possibly more, in the last 12 months for racecourses.

“It is a perilous situation.

“Without racegoers, it is perilous at all levels – and particularly for some of our top-level racing.”

The BHA, she confirmed, is hoping that Levy reform will unlock much-needed and sustainable financial help in years to come and that racing may also be able to access a crisis contingency fund via Government.

She added: “We are looking at trying to establish exactly what does this mean for us, financially and economically, so that we can go back to Government … to say how can they help us to get over this.

“What we don’t want to do is see the demise of the industry or long-term permanent damage done to it.”

A return of crowds would be a lifeline through an inevitably tough winter.

Asked if she believes that could happen, Phelps said: “We’re going to work on it as hard as we can.

“I really, really hope so – we’ll do everything we can.

“Most importantly, we need to work with Government to find a way to get the racegoers back on the track.

“What we need to do is … make sure we’re putting the case really strongly, which we are … that there is no evidence to show we’re increasing the transmission of the virus.

“We’re hoping that we can begin to work with Government to try to find some solutions to this in the shorter term, and we hope that six months is just a very long backstop and that we’ll be able to bring that forward.”

She is convinced racing has already demonstrated, albeit with just two fleeting opportunities, that limited crowds can return safely.

Asked if the BHA believes there is a case which can be presented to continue, she said: “Of course we do.”

Phelps also regards the racecourse, following the measures implemented there by the BHA, as one of the safest places amid the pandemic.

“Of course it is – but people have got to get to and from the racecourses,” she said, acknowledging as well though that the public perception of crowds on racecourses is critical to a Government trying to persuade millions nationwide to “do the right thing” to avoid infection.

“There is much more concern about (those) social aspects than there is about the regulated areas,” added Phelps, who is confident racecourses can host crowds safely.

“From what we’ve seen, (we think) they can.

“We’d like to ensure that Government are evaluating those (crowd) pilots properly, and making sure they didn’t lead to any transmission of infection.

“We don’t think there’s been any transmission on racecourses so far.

“It’s (Government’s) decision … they’re not basing it as far as we can see on the science, of what happens on the racecourse.

“What they are more worried about, and what we all should be worried about, is what people are doing off the racecourse.

“This is about trying to encourage people [general public, nationwide] to follow the rules.

“They [the Government] don’t want people’s private lives to be so constrained – funerals and weddings are really limited – and then for them to see people in great big (sporting) crowds.

“I think they’re trying to encourage people to do the right thing.

“That may not seem fair on us, and I can see why people are really frustrated. I’m frustrated, we all are with that.”