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Look beyond the punt to the people

On the day the nation stops to watch a horse race, Australia’s first and only full time horse racing chaplain says it’s a mistake to only focus on the gambling aspect of the racing industry.

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Colin Watts grew up in a family of horse trainers within the harness racing industry. Both his father and grandfather were horse trainers, so Watts is comfortable with the racing scene. But he says there’s always been a ‘feeling’ within the industry that the church wanted “nothing to do with them.”

“Whenever I tell someone that I’m a horse racing chaplain, usually their first look is of surprise. It’s not something they expect. That’s exactly why I’m here. I want to make them mix.”

“There are a lot of aspirations that aren’t always met.” – Colin Watts

“I’m trying to bring God’s love to people at the race track. Particularly in an environment where they feel that the church, or God, doesn’t want anything to do with them. I’m trying to break down that stereotype,” Colin told Eternity at barrier trials at Canterbury race track this week.

Watts is part of the Australian Racing Christian Chaplaincy (ARCC), established in 1996 to recruit and coordinate the work of racetrack chaplains. The organisation has nice chaplains working mostly on a volunteer basis around Australia. It is working on getting a chaplain in Melbourne, to work alongside a Catholic chaplain already in place.

Watts spends his time at track works, race meetings, barrier trials– he’s right in the thick of the industry. He works mostly with jockeys and trainers, helping them work through the pressures of a performance-based industry that sees injuries every week and many people unable to get the rides or the horses they need to get by. “There are a lot of aspirations that aren’t always met,” says Watts.

For Watts, horse racing is much more than the “glitz, glamour and gambling of the Melbourne Cup.”

“It’s about the horses, the people and the racing.”

“The Melbourne Cup is always a quality field of horses and riders, so it’s an exciting event, full of colour, drama and theatre.”

He says he hasn’t seen much evidence of gambling addiction within the industry. “That’s more an issue for outsiders.”

Millions of Australians are expected to ‘have a flutter’ on the Melbourne Cup, with estimates suggesting $140 million was dropped on last year’s Cup.

A 2012 survey by McCrindle found 37 per cent of Australians say the Melbourne Cup is the only time they place a sporting bet. The survey also found, however, that a further 37 per cent say they never bet, and the Melbourne Cup is no exception.

Watts says, despite spending most of his life connected to the horse racing industry in some way, he doesn’t gamble. Nor would he encourage other Christians to ‘take a flutter’ just to join in today.

“I mix regularly with people who gamble and have never felt ‘estranged’ from them by not having a bet,” he says.

“Stablehands are working with these million dollar horses, and sometimes they feel that the horse is worth more than they are.” – Colin Watts

Yet Watts believes encouraging gamblers not to gamble is often not the most helpful approach. While he is convinced that “everyone would be better off not having a bet”, he finds a positive approach works better than a negative one.

“I’d encourage [Christians] to focus on the spectacle itself. The Melbourne Cup is always a quality field of horses and riders, so it’s an exciting event, full of colour, drama and theatre.”

When asked about animal cruelty in the racing industry, Watts says it is an issue that he acknowledges, though most people he comes across have a “love for the horse”.

“That’s why they’re in the industry. Care for the horse is usually pretty high. There is a high concern for the horses well being. In fact, more concern for the horses than the people, sometimes.”

“Stablehands are working with these million dollar horses, and sometimes they feel that the horse is worth more than they are,” says Colin.

“Behind the glitz and glamour are just ordinary people,” he says. “Many have a love of horses, who are seeking to make a living. They are people who are loved by God as much as anyone else, and likewise in need of Christ as much as anyone else.”

Watts has found the racing industry in Sydney receptive to his work. He says while the industry can be “somewhat insular, and distrusting of outsiders”, barriers can be broken down by showing a consistent care and concern, and a genuine interest in the work they’re doing.

He says a goal of the ARCC is to find Christians who live near a racetrack who are willing to visit their local track, get to know the people there and provide a Christian ministry to them.

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