Politicians spoke up in support of racing’s ruling body and its chief executive, Nick Rust, after leaked emails showed high-profile trainers had called on Rust to quit and criticised him for a lack of leadership during the coronavirus crisis.
Laurence Robertson, who has Cheltenham racecourse in his Tewkesbury constituency, and Conor McGinn, the St Helens North MP whose patch includes Haydock Park, both said the British Horseracing Authority is doing a good job of protecting the sport’s interests and was maximising its chance of an early return to action.
That view is evidently not shared by some trainers, following the revelation that Ralph Beckett and Mark Johnston had emailed the BHA chair, Annamarie Phelps, to say Rust should give up his role immediately. Rust announced his departure in January but is serving a year-long period of notice, prompting Beckett to suggest his personal situation was affecting policy.
“It is clear that Nick is looking after his future in this instance, but his future is not ours,” Beckett wrote, according to a report in the Sunday Telegraph.
It is the latest evidence of a rift between the sport’s leaders and horsemen, a regular problem since the beginning of last year. Beckett and Johnston represent a feeling, shared by others in their line of work, that Rust is a lame-duck leader and as a result is showing insufficient drive in the cause of getting racing back in action.
“I’m disappointed with what I’ve read there,” Robertson said of the Telegraph article. “I know the BHA is pushing to try and get racing back on. I’ve seen the emails, I’ve been in contact with them, they are talking to government, to me and other MPs, about how we can do that in a responsible way
“The BHA and the Jockey Club were keen to carry on with racing as far as they could and they carried on with the Festival. They’re now getting some criticism for that a number of weeks later, which I think is unjustified because there were lots of sporting events that week. They did as much as they could and trainers need to remember that.”
McGinn said: “The BHA’s job is to protect the interests, integrity and reputation of the entire sport and look after its people and parts in all their diversity. I think that’s exactly what Nick Rust, his team and BHA members have done during these unprecedented and difficult circumstances.”
Beckett declined to make further comment but Johnston acknowledged he had sent the email and restated his wish for Rust to leave now. He added that “a lot of extremely good work” was being done at the BHA to prepare for a restart but expressed frustration at talk of waiting for a green light from government.
“The BHA have different contingency plans for various scenarios and should be going public with that and stating their intention to start, with lifting of lockdown being the most obvious trigger. Once they have stated those intentions, then government may at worst scupper them or ignore it, condone it or query certain parts of it. But I think that’s the way it has to happen, not us waiting for them to tell us: ‘Go ahead, guys.’
“It was a BHA decision to stop and it needs to be a BHA decision to restart, which government will no doubt look at, but don’t expect them to plan it for us.”
The Berkshire trainer Hughie Morrison backed Beckett and Johnston, saying: “Nick should have gone when he resigned. Lame-duck leaders never work. They’re positioning themselves to look good, so they can get another job. They’re not going to be brave. And then there’s a terrible vacuum within that organisation. Everyone below him is now terrified of making a mistake, possibly because they’re positioning themselves to take his job.”
He described Rust’s approach to the question of when to restart as “one of negativity” and said that was a widely held view among trainers. “We haven’t gone out there and put forward the strong arguments for putting on racing. We’re not just a sport, we’re a vertically integrated industry which supports a lot of people throughout the country, especially in rural areas.”
Johnston has recovered from coronavirus after he isolated in Middleham following confirmation of the symptoms this month. Despite their differences over racing’s resumption, there was a consensus between Johnston, Morrison and Robertson about when would be the right time to resume, five or six days after any relaxation of the present lockdown.
Racing insiders hope that may lead to the sport resuming, behind closed doors, in mid-May, which would probably be weeks ahead of other major sports in Britain but behind racing in Germany and France, set to resume on 4 May and 11 May respectively.
The BHA board said Rust and his team had its “full and unequivocal support”.