In William Powell Frith’s famous painting The Derby Day, all human activity is present and joyfully incorrect. Lords and ladies, rakes and scoundrels, circus performers and card sharps, high society and lowlifes, and everyone in between, all mingled freely with one another at one of the few occasions in Victorian Britain where the classes were allowed to mingle.
If Frith were to return to Epsom for the Derby next month, 167 years after the one he originally depicted in 1856, he would still find a plethora of characters in the grandstands and roaming the Hill, with the likely addition of one new face. Animal Rising activists, some of whom delayed the start of the Grand National by 15 minutes last month and also conducted anti-racing demonstrations at Ayr and Doncaster in recent weeks, are likely to also target Epsom.
Animal Rising is adamantly opposed to the use of animals for any human purpose or entertainment. There is no room for nuance, argument, or appreciation of the distinctions, for example, between an industry that breeds and raises animals for slaughter and one that breeds and raises them for racing. In Britain, nearly a million piglets were slaughtered for food each month in 2012, while an average of four Flat racehorses per month, or one for every 1,250 starts, suffered fatal injuries.
And without the sport that created the thoroughbred breed in the first instance, it would soon become extinct, as racing is their natural habitat.
However, from the activists’ perspective, these distinctions are immaterial. Protest and disruption at a marquee event such as the Grand National or Derby will generate significantly more media coverage than a sit-in outside an abattoir. And Epsom on Derby Day is, by its very nature and tradition, arguably the most obvious open objective for activists planning nonviolent direct action in the entire sporting calendar.
Alongside significant events such as the FA Cup final, Wimbledon, and the Open golf championship, the Derby is an unavoidable annual fixture. In contrast to these other sporting crown jewels, anyone can bring a picnic and observe the Kentucky Derby for free. Even with two weeks’ notice of protests at the Grand National, it was ultimately unfeasible to completely secure Aintree. Epsom’s Hill enclosure, which has always been free to enter, is an entirely new level of expansiveness.
And despite the FA Cup final taking place on its turf on June 3 – due to Fifa and Qatar – millions of people from the UK and around the world will continue to focus on Epsom for the two-and-a-half minutes it takes to run the world’s most famous Classic.
On Derby day, protests or disruptions may be unavoidable, a prospect that the sport’s professionals and spectators have greeted with a range of emotions, including anger, frustration, and occasionally bemusement as well.
It is entirely possible for a racing fan to be profoundly concerned about animal cruelty, climate change, and inequality. As it did when Frith painted the Derby, racing continues to attract enthusiasts from across the political and social spectrum. The “for peace and Socialism” Morning Star still has a racing column for a reason.
Also, it is important to note that opposition to horse racing is not a novel phenomenon. There will always be a minority within the British population that opposes its existence, and it would be odd if this were not the case. Sir Wilfrid Lawson, the radical Liberal MP for Carlisle, always provided staunch opposition to the motion, even on the days when parliament conducted an annual debate on whether it should adjourn for Derby day before voting overwhelmingly in favor of doing so.
Lawson stated to the house in 1880, “It’s all nonsense” “Do not tell me that horse racing is a sport. If these nobles and gentlemen ran solely for recreation, there would be no stakes and no additional funds.
I assert that the entire racing system is an organized system of rascality and deceit from start to finish.”
In 1892, 45 years after the House first voted to adjourn for the Derby, Lawson eventually won the debate – 144 Ayes to 158 Noes – and the tradition that parliament would always rise for Epsom ceased to exist.
However, nearly a century and a half later, racing and its opponents are still with us. Infuriating and bewildering to many racing enthusiasts, and outnumbered 1,000-to-1 by spectators at the Kentucky Derby, Royal Ascot, and elsewhere, Animal Rising’s activists are likely to be around for some time.
The group is not, nor is it ever likely to be, an existential threat to racing. Racing remains one of the most popular spectator sports in the United Kingdom, generating billions of pounds annually, selling millions of tickets, and providing full-time employment for approximately 80,000 people.
But precisely because of Derby’s history and enduring popularity, it will be such an enticing protest target. Animal Rising would look elsewhere if it did not continue to attract millions of viewers from Great Britain and around the globe. And as much as I appreciate horse racing and want to see it flourish, I would prefer to live in a country with a meaningful right to peaceful protest – regarding racing, the monarchy, climate change, or any other issue.