For vegans, the decision not to eat meat or wear products made from animals is an easy one to make. Whether they chose to become vegan because of the planet, their desire to protect animals or because they simply don’t like the taste of meat, the decision that they reached is one that then informs numerous different areas of their life. There are some questions that aren’t that easy to answer, however, unless they are really strict in their belief.
One such example comes in the form of horse racing. Yes, critics of the sport say that it is cruel and therefore the strictest vegan might wish to avoid it, but being a vegan isn’t the same thing as being an animal rights protester. Should vegans avoid horse racing in its entirety? If so, does that also mean that they shouldn’t place bets, given the betting industry pays money into the support of horse racing? Or is a bit more complicated than that?
The Definition Of Veganism
Let’s start by defining exactly what it is that we’re talking about when we discuss veganism. It is defined by most as the ‘practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in reference to diet’. It is also seen as a philosophy that rejects viewing animals as a commodity. Within the world of veganism, however, there are different distinctions that people can choose to apply to their own situation.
Dietary vegans, for example, are also known as ‘strict vegetarians’. This is because they will avoid consuming any meat as well as animal-derived products. This can include the likes of eggs, milk and even honey. They are seen as a different form of vegan to the ‘moral vegan’, which is someone who follows the dietary requirements but also avoids the use of an animal ‘for any purpose’.
The differing levels of veganism mean that those that adhere to it as a lifestyle have their own choices to make regarding various aspects of their lives. The Vegan Society is aware of this, referring to the ‘many ways to embrace vegan living’ but also drawing attention to the fact that all vegans follow a plant-based diet. The Society’s own definition of veganism is perhaps the one to look to at this point and they say that it is the following:
“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Can Vegans Watch Horse Racing
An obvious question around vegans is whether or not they can enjoy horse racing. Whilst it is a very personal decision, the Vegan Society’s stance on the matter is that they should not. They say,
“Vegans choose not to support animal exploitation in any form and so avoid visiting zoos or aquariums, or taking part in dog or horse racing. A great alternative is visiting and supporting animal sanctuaries that provide safe and loving homes for rescued animals.”
The implication, then, is that vegans shouldn’t watch horse racing in any form. This is largely down to the fact that horses die when taking part in races, leading vegans to refer to the industry as ‘cruel and exploitative’. It makes sense that vegans would wish to avoid horse racing, given that the majority of them have taken up the lifestyle because they wish to avoid pain and suffering to animals.
One of the races that is most often targeted by vegans and animal rights campaigners alike is the Grand National. The event, which takes place at Aintree Racecourse every April, is scene as something of a poster-race for those that wish to criticise the horse racing industry. This is perhaps linked to the fact that the National is often seen as the race that even those that aren’t interested in horse racing will have a bet on.
The chief reasons given by those that oppose the National for wanting it abolished are that numerous horses suffer injuries during the race and other become fatalities. This is in spite of the fact that the Grand National Meeting has been responsible for fewer fatalities over the past few years than major events such as the Cheltenham Festival, yet it is seen as an easy target by critics of the horse racing industry.
The reality of horse racing is that it’s a complicated industry for many to get their heads around. On the one hand, it involves the exploitation of horses by owners and trainers for their own gain, but on the other hand it is in the best interests of people involved in the industry to treat the horses extremely well. Even a question such as ‘Absent human intervention, would they be doing this?’ isn’t a simple one to answer.
Horse enjoy running and jumping; it’s a part of their nature. They wouldn’t be doing it in the manner required for competitive racing without the input of humans, but then equally the case that they get wouldn’t exist without it. No human intervention would mean no treatment for injury or disease, for example, whilst a horse that breaks its leg in nature will simply have to wait until it starves to death rather than being euthanised.
The other complication when it comes to horse racing is that many who become vegans do so because they think eating food derived from animals is cruel. Not all vegans necessarily subscribe to the idea that this should extend to other parts of their life, with sport and entertainment being one such example. Perhaps the extent to which people think there’s a link between horse racing and veganism is based on their own militancy?
The Vegan Jockey
In November of 2020, David Bass won 18 races at the start of the jump racing season. Included within those wins were two Group 2 events, helping him to be named the ‘Jockey Of The Month’. The surprising thing for many is that Bass is also a vegan. He became a vegan for ‘environmental reasons’, having research and educated himself on the connections between climate change and diet.
Though he was reluctant to ‘go preaching and telling other jockeys to be vegan’, he did feel that becoming a vegan has helped him to recover from falls and injuries more quickly. He thinks its ‘hard to say’ whether becoming a vegan has made him a better jockey or healthier and possibly fitter, but he did say that it has ‘helped me on being knowledgeable about what I’m eating’.
Interestingly, Bass touched on the notion of him being a ‘hypocrite’ because he wears leather boots and used a leather saddle, but he steered clear of talking about the conflict involved in him being a vegan that takes part in horse racing events. Instead he said,
“So I would say to people if we can all make a small change we might be able to make a bigger difference,”
Which touched on the idea of him being an environmental vegan.
Picking & Choosing What Matters
Every vegan will have their own reason for taking up the lifestyle and their own approach to being a vegan. For some it will be about the taste of meat, whilst for others it will come down to a moral obligation that they feel around animal rights. The key thing to remember, though, is that not all vegans have chosen to be so because they are fully-fledged members of animals rights organisations.
The reality is that vegans will pick and choose which parts of the lifestyle work for them, depending on how they live. For David Bass, there was no contradiction in being a vegan and being a jockey, given that he chose to take up veganism for environmental reasons. Some vegans will eat honey without even thinking about it, whilst others won’t even drink wine without first making sure that it is vegan wine.
In some ways, there’s probably a fair comparison between veganism and religion. There are some people in both that are zealots, refuting anything that has to do with animals in any way, shape or form when it comes to being a vegan. Yet there are plenty of others who, in essence, opt to ‘pick and choose’ which part of veganism should apply to them and then acting accordingly, just as there are different levels of religious believers.
Should Vegans Place Bets?
The interesting question about veganism comes in the form of how far vegans should go in order to to be true to their beliefs. The vast majority of vegans won’t use a product because it has been tested on animals, but what about if the product itself hasn’t been but the parent company that makes the product uses animal testing? Many would doubtless say that they should be avoided in order to not give them any money, so should that extend to bookmakers?
A vegan football supporter might want to place a bet on a match featuring their favourite football team, but the chances of being able to find a bookie that covers football markets but not horse racing is slim to nil. Should the vegan therefore not place a bet on football because their bookmaker of choice also accepts bets on horse racing? What about the fact that bookies contribute to the Horseracing Betting Levy Board?
Bookmakers that take bets on horse racing are required to contribute to the HBLB, collecting a percentage of gross profits on horse racing bets that they have taken. This helps the horse racing industry be the sport that it is, so does a vegan have a moral obligation to not use such a bookie to place their bets with? If so, does that mean that they simply shouldn’t be placing any bets at all with that bookmaker?
Ultimately, it comes down to each individual to figure out where they draw the line. For some, it will be a moral conundrum that will weigh heavy on them as they try to figure out the right thing to do. For others, though, it will be an easy enough decision to make, believing that that takes the idea of being a vegan too far. It’s proof, perhaps, that even in movements such as veganism there are different levels that people operate at.
Views From Vegans We Spoke To
We spoke to ten vegans, five male and five female across an age range from 20 years old to 66 years old. Out of those ten people eight said they will not watch or bet on horse racing or sports involving animals in anyway, one was unsure and one said they were happy to watch and bet on racing and other sports as long as animals were treated well. The respondents that were unsure or did approve of racing after becoming vegan were both men, all five women surveyed said they did not approve.
We make no scientific or statistical statements with such a small group but it is interesting that the majority of people we spoke to, men and women of different ages, largely shared the same opinions.
It was interesting to find that from the eight people that said they would not watch horse racing and did not approve of it seven said that those feelings existed before they became vegan. This suggests that it is not becoming a vegan as such that makes people not like horse racing, and other sports involving animals, rather that people who already have these views are more likely to become vegan.
The only respondent that said they had previously watched and bet on horse racing before becoming vegan and now they disapprove also happens to be the oldest participant, they did not become vegan until there early 50’s, after which they changed their stance on horse racing. Most other respondents became vegan from late adolescence to early adulthood.
All eight people in our small survey that did not approve of horse racing said they took a more active stance since becoming a vegan. The one respondent that said they were unsure stated that they did like horse racing before becoming vegan and they still do to a degree, although they no longer actively watch or bet on it and it would make them feel more guilty to do so. The only person to state that they are happy to continue watching and betting on racing stated that veganism to them was primarily about their diet and health.
Therefore veganism in itself doesn’t necessarily preclude people to not like horse racing but it is more likely to strengthen those views.
How Does The Future Of Veganism & Horse Racing Look?
There is solid research to suggest that younger people are more likely to turn vegan. Between 2006 and 2016, for example, there was a 350% rise in veganism, with the young believed to be the driving force behind it. 42% of vegans at the time were in the 15-34 age bracket, with organisations such as the Teen Vegan Network seeing their own events selling out as a result.
With younger people also more likely to be engaged in animal rights issues, it suggests that the future could be rather sticky for the horse racing industry. Horse racing is already a sport that struggles to bring in younger people, with competitions such as the Racing League being introduced with the specific aim of trying to engage more young people with the world of horse racing.
If more people are turning vegan and are also engaging in animal rights cases, on top of the sport as a whole failing to attract younger fans, does this mean that horse racing will lose its lustre? Ever since horse racing was introduced to the United Kingdom in the 19th century, it has faced challenges and reasons for the industry to be concerned. It has overcome all of them and it is unlikely that veganism will be any different.
Instead, horse racing as a whole might look to follow David Bass’ example and introduce small changes that can make a big difference. There will always be plenty of vegans that the world of horse racing will never win over, whilst there’ll be others that will always love horse racing in spite of their veganism. It’s the ones in the middle that the industry will need to try to win over, with the future being the only way we’ll find out if it has.