Promotional Feature with Great British Racing
As if designing championship cross-country courses was not enough, last year Mike Etherington-Smith took on the role of equine safety adviser to British Racing’s Horse Welfare Board.
Mike is perhaps best known for designing Olympic and championship eventing courses around the world. Some may not be aware that he has been intrinsically involved with risk management in eventing for the past 20 years – a sport which was forced to evolve rapidly to reduce falls and serious injury. This made him the ideal candidate to help in the implementation of a five-year strategy to ensure the highest standards of welfare for horses bred for racing, throughout their lives, entitled “A Life Well Lived”.
This strategy is overseen by the sport’s Horse Welfare Board, an independently chaired board made up of racing’s key stakeholders. It has 26 active projects underway including campaigns, research studies and change initiatives.
The upcoming National Racehorse Week (10–18 September) is one such initiative, a free event inviting more than 11,000 members of the public to come behind the scenes of the sport at studs, racing and racehorse retraining yards up and down the country.
Mike’s appointment focuses purely on making racing as safe as possible for the equine athlete, and that has been a source of interest for him for many years.
“The principles around the management of risk are equally applicable to racing as they are to eventing, so it is a simple crossover,” he explains. “It is all the same issues generally: horses have to be fit to compete, taught to jump properly, and given every opportunity to perform safely and to the best of their ability. It’s about horsemanship, veterinary management, and understanding the athlete, the horse.
“Just like dealing with any athlete, you have to put a plan together to produce optimum performance on the day. That inevitably also means managing niggling little injuries, the same as humans get. This is all part of equine safety so that when horses are sent to race, they are fully prepared and fit to race.”
A focus on safety
While Mike has had an illustrious career in course-designing, which has included two Olympics (Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008) and a number of four- and five-star tracks around the world, his interest now is equine safety and welfare – more so than anything else.
“I am no less passionate about racing than I am about any other equestrian sport; my primary interest in any kind of horse sport is their safety and welfare,” he says. “Anything that touches equine safety crosses my desk.”
Before being appointed for this role by the Horse Welfare Board, with funding provided by the Racing Foundation, Mike has had previous involvement with the industry. He designed the cross-country course at Cheltenham and was involved with the Grand National revamp in 2011.
His latest brief is a broad one and there are two sides to it, he says. One is prevention, which is pre-competition work, and then there is what can be done on the day.
“Racecourses are doing a fantastic job. If you look at footage of racecourses, the improvement you can see over the years is huge,” explains Mike. “There is a thirst for knowledge in the sport among so many people, and an understanding that anything the sport can do to reduce the number of falls, fatalities and long-term injuries needs to be done.
“Part of my role is to come in and make a bit of noise around it and get people thinking, encourage everyone inside the sport to step outside and look in and see what the outside world sees, and work out what can be done. I believe in challenging the status quo. I am not suggesting that things are being done badly, far from it; it’s more about good business management and asking ourselves what we can do better. It’s what we all ask ourselves on a regular basis, be our own biggest critic and we must never be afraid to have these conversations.”
Projects in action
Mike and his team are working on several projects, and earlier this year got the “Orange to White” initiative over the line. Intensive research carried out by Exeter University, and heavily supported by the Horserace Betting Levy Board and Racing Foundation, concluded in 2019 that changing the take-off boards and guard rails on steeplechase fences plus hurdle frames to white (from mostly orange), provided increased contrast and visibility for horses, which should in turn lead to improved jumping performances.
A phased roll-out of the new white markings commenced in March, and all jumps tracks will have made the colour switch by the end of the year.
“We are looking to do further work on hurdles and their profile and other obstacle construction,” Mike adds. “There is discussion about a new hurdle frame to see whether we can improve the current design and there is belief that we probably can.
“We have a ground and going steering group reviewing and updating best practice for the optimum development, preparation, and use of racing surfaces. We have a working group looking at if and how hurdles can be improved, including looking at pads used and whether we can come up with a better product that may be longer lasting. There is also discussion about an above-ground hurdle, rather than one that has legs that go into the ground. This idea has been on the table for some time now and we are looking at whether it is feasible and viable.
“We are also looking at the causes of falls. I am keen to know why horses are falling, and that piece of information isn’t available yet. We know where they fall, but we don’t necessarily know why – this excludes horses that are brought down. Are they clumsy, could some be trained and prepared better? We don’t know at the moment.
“The first major international event I designed was Bramham in the mid-1980s. Some of the stuff we jumped in the ’70s and ’80s you probably wouldn’t put on a course today. Things evolve and you try new developments, and they don’t always work out for the better but in the interests of the sport you have to try things in the collective belief that they are a good thing to do.
“For example, 30 or so years ago in eventing there was a belief that bigger timber was a good thing, but one of the unintended and unforeseen consequences was that people rode faster because the profiles became softer. So, we then had to address that. That’s all part of the learning process. In racing, it might be the same. There are lots of good and sensible ideas on how to reduce the number of accidents, but we need to be certain, before anything is considered for introduction into the sport, that it stacks up and has stakeholder support.”
Mike has found people to be really co-operative and engaged.
“The industry has been really supportive because whether it’s racing, eventing or any other equestrian sport, at the end of the day we are all in it together.,” he says. “To the outside world, we are just ‘people on horses’ and how we treat, and how we are seen to treat, horses nowadays is the single most important thing that will determine the future.”
He concludes: “Everyone has the same objective and wants the sport to grow and become more sustainable. You have to view every challenge as an opportunity, and I am someone who likes to make things happen.”
National Racehorse Week takes place 10 to 18 September with yards up and down the country opening their doors and inviting people behind the scenes of racing. To find a nearby event and book your place, go to nationalracehorseweek.uk