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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.”