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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

A Lockdown Interview with Debbie Matthews of #GoRacingGreen

Crowded, bustling racecourses are not always the most welcoming venues, even for racing fans. Yet, inspirational Debbie Mathews, 43, strives to change this to make racing accessible and pleasurable for everyone. Having battled social anxiety for years, Debbie mustered her courage to visit Ascot in January 2019, simply to watch Altior run. From this, the idea of #GoRacingGreen grew.

The question remains, can a cluster of racegoers wearing green ribbons and green bobble hats change attitudes within a sport? That is not to trivialise these visible symbols of support of a campaign that has already touched so many. Progress might have seemed impossible in the early days of the campaign, but some of racing’s biggest names have already rallied round. Nicky Henderson welcomed Debbie; Fergal O’Brien, Tom Lacey and the betting firm Unibet all support her. The steps might be slow, but, importantly, they are moving forward. Any incentive that makes racing universally appealing and accessible is definitely a positive for this sport.

Originally from Bristol, Debbie lives in Highbridge, which is near the seaside town of Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. She has a daughter Nellie, 12, and a son, Dominic, 2, and a miniature long-haired dachshund called Lola. Debbie kindly completed this interview back in the summer and even since then, #GoRacingGreen has been growing strongly…

Are you “horsey”?

I was not at all horsey until I was 38, but I now own a pony called Rosie. She is almost 8, and is a 13hh bay cob, who I rehomed from World Horse Welfare in September 2018. She is a non-ridden companion pony who I use very much for “therapy”. She was driving carts at too young an age and was rescued from travellers, so she is permanently lame.

Where did your interest in racing derive from?

In March 2017, I was in the early stages of pregnancy and wasn’t able to go out due to severe nausea. Basically, every time I moved, I was almost ill, so it wasn’t much fun, especially as I suffer with something called emetophobia, which is a phobia of being sick! I was flicking through the TV and stopped on the Cheltenham Festival, and I happened to switch on as Altior was running in the Champion Chase. I knew nothing of racing or horses, but I remember thinking it looked like he was literally flying over the fences! From then, I started to follow Altior, and that got me interested in racing.

Where have you visited so far to do with horseracing?

Fergal O’Brien and his team were the first to introduce me to a racing yard well before #GoRacingGreen started, and I have since visited their yard quite a few times. I have also visited Dan & Claire Kubler, Jo Davis, Kayley Woollacott, Seven Barrows, Phil McEntee, Amy Murphy, Margarson Racing and Malzard Racing (in Jersey). I am slowly working my way around the racecourses, but still have so many to do!

Which is your favourite racehorse?

My favourite is Altior, but I have since met lots of other horses that I feel I have an affinity with and follow.

Do you prefer Flat or National Hunt?

Initially, I couldn’t engage with flat racing. Also, I did learn to ride a few years ago and did a couple of BHS courses, where it is drummed into you that horses shouldn’t be sat on until they are 3. I didn’t think flat racing was cruel, I just failed to understand it. I have visited Dan & Claire Kubler’s a few times and their knowledge and the way in which they explained to me about flat horses and their development completely changed my opinion. I hope, as a small part of #GoRacingGreen, that I can help deliver that message. Now, I have to say I love the flat as much as the jumps.

Who do you admire in racing?

I have to give a mention to “Dr Simon” – Dr Simon Gillson who is behind Fergal O’Brien’s social media accounts. As anyone who follows them will know, he has a fantastic sense of humour and wit! I have met so many great people who have taken the time to engage with me it would be difficult to list them all.

Name one racehorse (past or present) you would like to meet?

I really wish I could have met Roaring Lion. I would absolutely love to meet Deidre!

Who is your favourite jockey?

Oisin Murphy. I think as well as his talent as a jockey, his knowledge really shines through. It is brilliant how he takes time to share videos and updates, and he always takes time to stop at the racecourse. From a marketing perspective, he is the complete package and appeals to all generations. He is a really great ambassador for the sport.

How was your initial visit to Ascot Racecourse implicit in starting #GoRacingGreen?

There would have been no #GoRacingGreen without that visit. The power of social media can be incredible; when I tweeted that morning that I was going to face my fears and get myself to a racecourse, I had no idea how many people would relate to that. The initiative was started simply from that tweet and the amount of people who subsequently contacted me, asking for more to be done to support people like us whilst going racing.

What are your aims through #GoRacingGreen?

It is a two-fold project really. There is a community and social side, which I am grateful is supported by The Kindred Group and Unibet Racing. This element happens on and off the racecourse and includes stable visits and general meetups. For example, a small group of us recently went for a picnic. The importance of this element is that many of the people I now refer to as the #GoRacingGreen community struggle in social situations. In the main, we don’t like large crowds, unfamiliar environments and we have various anxieties that not everyone understands. Subsequently, we have stopped doing a lot of things because we have had bad experiences or feel if we were out and became uncomfortable for whatever reason people wouldn’t understand. This obviously has an impact on quality of life for the person concerned and their family, and can lead to loneliness. The #GoRacingGreen events are always small groups, and anyone who comes along knows they are with likeminded people who will support and understand them. I have been very humbled by the number of people who have told me I have changed their life, or that of their loved one, simply by making them feel included.

The second element, which is really yet to take off, is to make racecourses understand that there are lots of people out there who would love nothing more than to go to a race day but are deterred by some of the reasons I mention above – crowds, unfamiliar environment, and sensory processing challenges. We can coexist alongside existing racegoers, the ones they currently feel take prevalence in marketing to, providing we have the right facilities in place. This is not about wanting to change racing, this is about getting more people through the gates, whilst also supporting people’s quality of life through racing. I am a qualified accessible and dementia tourism officer, so implementing #GoRacingGreen at racecourses is a skillset I have transferred from working with other attractions, hotels, etc. This involves creating a safe and quiet area at a racecourse, training the staff to be “Dementia Friends”, “Autism Aware” and having a general understanding of conditions such as social anxiety, and then creating a bespoke Sensory and Accessibility Guide for non-physical disabilities for the course. This will give people access to essential pre-visit information to help them plan their day and know what to expect.

What made you initially think of the need for #GoRacingGreen?

Simply the huge response to that first tweet and the people who got in touch with me saying how they wished they could go racing, or take a family member racing, but were not able to. All these people have provided me with invaluable real-life feedback about the barriers and challenges they face, and all this is built into the training and development of the initiative.

Was it purely your own experience at Ascot that began #GoRacingGreen or did you build on the experiences of others too?

I certainly wasn’t comfortable that first day at Ascot that first day. I did go inside at one point simply because I wanted to have a look, but I very quickly became panicky due to the number of people. It was a freezing cold and wet January day and I simply decided to stay around the parade ring outside until after Altior’s race. When you live with anxieties and phobias you can honestly believe you are the only person in the world that feels that way, so to share experiences with others was the main catalyst for taking it forward.

Do you find social media positive or negative?

Both! Obviously without Twitter #GoRacingGreen wouldn’t have happened. I have also helped a lot of people via communicating through Facebook Messenger and Twitter. It is also a great way of sharing blogs, information on events and of course the virtual things I did during lockdown, like the #GoRacingGreen Grand National and Guineas. I have also made lots of friends and connections. There is also a negative side. I have been the subject of a fair bit of “bullying” which used to really upset me, but I have hardened to that a bit now, though of course it is not nice. People really need to think before they type because you never know what someone is experiencing in their life, and although to some it may seem like just a tweet, you don’t know how that can affect the recipient. I think the thing with any form of electronic communication, be it social media, text or email, is that it can unintentionally be taken the wrong way. Sometimes there is nothing better than verbal communication!

How has #GoRacingGreen progressed since your initial ideas?

It is developing all the time! Initially it was just to work with the racecourses, but then I started getting invited to yards and I got so much enjoyment from that I thought it would be great to extend that to inviting members of the #GoRacingGreen community along too. From that, it has branched out to working with facilities such as dementia care homes, supported living facilities, residential centres for people with various mental health needs, so it is developing all the time.

What is your vision for #GoRacingGreen in the future?

I have so many plans and ideas and I get new ones all the time. I am working with Ed Nicholson and Unibet at the moment on some virtual things as we are obviously not allowed to go racing at the moment, and hopefully these will turn into “real time” events once we are allowed. I want to expand on the number of stable visits and social activities I do, not just in the community but also by involving dementia care facilities, SEND schools, etc. Ideally, the main aim is to get as many people to go racing as possible that currently aren’t able to, by engaging more racecourses and/or sourcing funds to allow that to be done. I am also very keen to show my presentation to as many people within the industry as possible – media, BHA, RCA, racecourses, even trainers and yards, because I have been told that it is the presentation that really ignites the understanding in people with regard to what the initiative is all about.

Please explain how you expanded #GoRacingGreen into visiting a Cotswold riding school and what are your aims here?

At the end of last month, I was invited to go to Bourton Vale Equestrian Centre for an adult’s pony pampering day by a friend I have made through #GoRacingGreen. The centre has linked up with a project called CROP (Cotswold Riding Opportunities Project), and their ethos fits in very well with that of #GoRacingGreen – enhancing people’s lives and mental health through horses. In the future, we are going to organise visits for #GoRacingGreen members to that centre, and hopefully other local yards as well.

How did racing cartoonist Darren Bird offer his support?

The Saturday following Ascot, I went to Cheltenham Festival Trials Day, and I hadn’t been there long when people were coming up to me and saying, “You’ve got a Birdie!”. Darren had done a picture of me and Altior, and after that he offered to design the logo that is used for #GoRacingGreen.

Which racecourses have started using your initiative?

Chester, Newbury, Nottingham and Jersey. Salisbury and Carlisle were in the early stages of setting it up prior to lockdown, so they will be the next once time allows.

Please explain the idea about racegoers wearing a green ribbon and what it symbolises.

A green ribbon is always the ribbon worn for mental health awareness. I wanted to introduce something that was non-labelling. There are lots of initiatives out there, the sunflower lanyard for example, which many people, especially adults, will not wear because they feel it labels them as being different. The idea of the ribbon is that is a common symbol, and it won’t make someone stand out. The person wearing it may have a challenge, or they may just be someone who is happy for someone to say hello to them or stand with them on a race day.

Which racing institutions initially supported your Tweet about going to Ascot?

The Racing Post ran a couple of stories that first week and, in the early weeks, I had conversations with many industry organisations. However, sadly, they were never followed up and have not come to fruition as yet, which has been disappointing.

What other events do you plan to host in the future?

Our first post-lockdown event is next Saturday, 18th July, a rescheduled Newmarket day out that was due to take place in April. We will be visiting the gallops, three yards and then having lunch. Now restrictions are being lifted I am in the process of getting together a schedule to cover the next couple of months. There is a visit to Nick Gifford’s in the pipeline, Bourton Vale Equestrian Centre and hopefully a few picnics at various locations.

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