Racing charity provides solace in tough times

Pirate IRWIN
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Racing in Britain is suspended until the end of April

Horse racing is often seen as a preserve of the wealthy but charity Racing Welfare is working overtime to deal with huge demands from those working in an industry in dire financial straits.

The charity's mission is to look after the British horse racing workforce and the coronavirus pandemic has put staff under immense pressure, with the sport in shutdown.

Racing Welfare, created in 2000, provides housing for working and retired staff at rates well below market value as well as occupational and mental health services.

They rely on charitable donations and fundraising. Funding also comes from the Racing Foundation, who are custodians of the charitable funds that the sport received from the government's sale of the Tote (Horserace Totalisator Board) to betting company Betfred in 2011.

However, with a staff of just 48, chief executive Dawn Goodfellow said their resources had never been so stretched.

Racing Foundation trustees agreed a substantial donation on Wednesday which they can use to plug a financial gap for those who come to them in desperate need.

"We need a hardship grant for people with no access to funds and who need to put food on the table and pay utility bills," she told AFP by phone.

Goodfellow said there had been an exponential rise in calls to their helpline since the outbreak of the pandemic, with both stable and stud staff laid off.

"Housing is an issue," she said. "A fair amount of housing is tied to jobs in racing. So we are tackling the issue with staff being laid off by stud farms or trainers and having to find somewhere to live."

- 'Mental pressures' -

Trainers are also suffering, according to Goodfellow -- the reality of their jobs is often at odds with the glamorous image at high-profile race meetings such as Cheltenham or Royal Ascot.

"Trainers themselves are an area of big concern," she said. "They are mainly micro-enterprises. They are under a great deal of pressure as they are already operating on marginal returns.

"The mental pressures are already big but will pile up."

"It is a lonely role," she added. "Either they or their wives are running the business side which involves financial management, horse welfare and personnel welfare."

Racing in Britain is suspended until the end of April and this week the first four of England's five annual Classic races, including the Epsom Derby, were postponed.

Goodfellow fears if there is no limited resumption of racing in May, the situation could spiral.

"May 1 is pivotal as already we have had genuine cases of hardship but if it does not resume it could become a torrent," she said.

"There will be many more businesses in distress and that will impact on their employees who will also seek help from us.

"Owners may take their horses away from trainers to reduce their costs in training fees, and staff who are hanging on in there just for the moment may well be let go."

The figures are stark.

"Those eligible to apply to us for help are 13,000 on the horse racing side. There are a further 7,000 from racecourse administration, more than half of whom have been placed on the government's furlough assistance scheme," she said.

"Eighty percent of those could be at risk, with 75 percent of them coming to us," said Goodfellow.

At the moment the number one issue for those seeking help is financial problems followed by enquiries about benefits, with mental health sixth on the list.

"I would expect the mental health issue to grow in the coming weeks due to those other problems," she said.

"We are in a bit of a lull at the moment."