OLPT talk to Debbie Matthews of #GoRacingGreen

Question 1 – Your story is one that allot of people will know now, however for those who maybe are not familiar with GoRacingGreen or yourself, could you give a little background story about you and how this all came to be? 
In the summer of 2015 I was suffering severely with my mental health. A horse staying at the livery yard behind my house kept getting out and coming to the end of my garden. I was 38 at the time and have never been at all horsey, but he came every day, and in the end I truly believe that having him to talk to that summer when I felt no one understood me, saved my life. When I was pregnant with my son at the start of 2017 I was home ill a lot, and started watching horse racing, and that’s where my journey with horses began. I remember watching a horse run at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival on the TV and thinking that he looked like he was flying. The horse turned out to be Altior.

Question 2 – In January 2019 a decision from you to attend Ascot Racecourse to watch Altior and a post you put on social media were really what got the ball rolling for GoRacingGreen. How much do you remember about that specific day at Ascot in January 2019? 
I remember being awake all of the night before thinking should I go or shouldn’t I go. It was an awful day, icy cold rain, wind, and I had no one to go with, but I knew that all the other times I had planned to go racing and not gone, I had been disappointed with myself afterwards. I set myself the goal to drive there, because if I really didn;t want to go in, then I didn’t have to. If I felt comfortable when I go there, I would go in shortly before Altior’s race, watch him, then leave. And that is pretty much what I did. I put that tweet out and thought nothing of it. I think I had around 120 followers at that time, as I had only recently set up the account as I wrote blogs. I remember driving and keep hearing my phone pinging and I wondered whatever was going on. I pulled in at Membury Services and checked my phone and saw all these replies to my tweets saying how brave I was and that I could do it. That really spurred me on. i did literally stay outside, get a coffee from one of the outdoor kiosks and stand outside. I was freezing! I did go inside at one point just to have a look but it was far too overwhelming. That evening I received a message on Twitter from Stuart Riley at The Racing Post asking if he could share my story. On the following Tuesday I went to Seven Barrows and Ed Whitiker did a photo shoot with myself and Altior and on the Wednesday I was front page Racing Post!

Question 3 – When you look back on that day now, do you think you were aware at the time of just how big a decision you had made and what you had started? 
I literally had absolutely no idea! Even though people were messaging me saying well done for going, I didn’t realise people would then start contacting me saying either they or someone they lived with/knew felt the same as me, or had a life challenge that prevented them from going to watch racing, even though they would dearly love to, and asking if I was going to create a campaign to make this possible. That had obviously never been my intention, I just went wanting to see Altior “for real”. As it happens, I had worked in hospitality my whole life, and had a tourism consultancy where for the past few years I had specialised in helping businesses in accessible and dementia tourism. I assessed businesses for VisitEngland, delivered training sessions as Dementia Friends and Autism Awareness and much more. So, I just thought, well surely a racecourse is a venue much like a hotel, restaurant or tourist attraction and although I didn;t know much about horse racing, I had been working with those sort of businesses for 20 years. That is how I put #GoRacingGreen together.

Question 4 – On your website you say the aim of GoRacingGreen is to support people who love the sport but have challenges that potentially stop them from being able to attend and enjoy the sport to the full. For people who are not as informed on social phobias or anxiety issues, just what is it about them that holds people back from doing what they love more often? 
There are so many social phobias out there, from general social anxiety to phobias relating to noise, food, toilets and just about everything. In addition, people with challenges like early stage dementia, autism and Aspergers can find crowds, noise, unfamiliar environments distressing, along with noise, people that have had a bit to drink, and crowds. I also had a lot of messages from people who live alone, in particlar females and widows, who do not want to go racing alone. There is also the very real fear that if we go somewhere and have a meltdown, everyone just looks at you, because there is no real understanding. I get that it is easy for people that don’t find any of this any of this a problem to not understand just what a big deal it really is for us to just leave the house every day. To know we could go somewhere where there is a designated area, awareness trained staff and other people that understand us enables us to live and not just exist, and that is how vital it is for us.

Question 5 – Take someone who is in the same situation that you were in back in January 2019, someone who wants to pursue a passion like going to watch horse racing but is still stuck on the side lines. What advice would you give to them? 
It is very hard to give someone with an anxiety or challenge advice, as although there are common factors, we are all different. It’s very frustrating when people say “Oh, you’ll be fine!” Now, I would say in the case of horse racing, to contact me. When we are permitted to go racing again I have several #GRG Ambassadors, and also a huge community of people that go racing regularly that people could meet up with.I would never suggest anyone do something that would make them feel uncomfortable. Similarly, I am alsways very honest to them about what race days and racecourses would not suit them. #GoRacingGreen has a very strict protocol which has been approved by VisitEngland, The Alzheiner’s Society and The University of Exeter – no one gets the accredition unless they implement it exactly by the book. The last thing I want to do is send someone into a situation that could be distressing for them.

Question 6 – On your website you have a whole list of services that you provide, from sensory awareness sessions, social anxiety sessions, venue assessment and dementia friends sessions. What should someone expect when they sign up to one of your sessions? 
In terms of what I deliver for a racecourse to become #GRG Accredited, there is a package. Newbury, Chester, Nottingham and Jersey have undertaken this. Salisbury and Carlisle were in the process of doing so when the virus hit. The sessions make the staff aware thst this is not about segretating people further and making them stand out as different. It is about inclusion, and inclusion means everyone. As well as the standard awareness sessions such as Dementia Friends, I talk about how there are common triggers between various conditions, the importance of not labelling people and simple things that never seem to get picked up. I have heard so many times “people can just call us if they want to ask any questions or let us know about any issues they have”. The majority of people with anxiety have telephone anxiety and will never pick up the phone! I also do a walk round of the venue, and from this create a bespoke sensory guide. Prior information on what we can expect is key to us. It also means we don;t have to pick up the phone.

Question 7 – What steps or actions do you think the racing community as a whole could take to make sure that anyone and everyone who wants to attend a day at the races feels safe and confident enough to do so? 
The racing community ate 100% behind it. It is the industry that need to back it and I am disappointed that  that hasn’t happened. I have been having meeting with The BHA since March 2019, and it was their desire to kitemark #GRG so if someone went on a racecourse website and saw the logo, they knew it would be safe for them to go. I have been passed from pillar to post since then and we are still no nearer this happening or it being funded. Unibet Racing amazingly support the community side of the initiative – the stable visits and my time to support people day in and day out, which as you cam imagine has kept me extremely busy during this pandemic. There are a lor of very lonely people out there and people struggling immsensely with their mental health. Thanks to Unibet’s support #GRG has been a lifeline to them. I have offered to do my presentation to The BHA, RCA, GBR so they have a better understanding, but as yet, they have not taken that up. I cannot get funding for the racecourse element as The BHA already have had funding through The Racing Foundation. However, despite all its accreditations #GRG is still not being recognised. Whilst they are working on LGBTQ+ and ethnicity, this isn’t inclusion, this is putting people into more boxes. #GRG is for everyone that feels they are different or strugge in some way, with no labels. The courses that have undertaken #GRG have funded it themselves.

Question 8 – As you called him the catalyst for your decision to attend Ascot it is only right we ask about Altior. What are your thoughts on his come back run in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, and his prospects of winning a 3rd Champion Chase in March? 
Do you know what, he won 19 out of 19 “on the trot”. He has nothing to prove to me, or anyone. I think there was a lot of pressure on him to go the extra distance and prove he could do more, but to be honest if he had been mine i would have retired him at Sandown in 2019, lol. I just want him to come back safely and, when he does go into retirement, have a long and happy life.

Question 9 – We have seen you having visits and spending time at multiple yards, and whilst horses are always the top topic, it does seem that cake is never to far from being mentioned. So we would like to know, if there was a Great British Racing bake off, which yard would win? 
Fergal’s without a doubt! I am really disappointed they didn’t an oven in their new kitchen as I would have gone every week and done a batch of baking!

Question 10 – What does the future hold for GoRacingGreen? 
Ultimately, it needs more funding. So racing really does become inclusive for everyone and not leave anyone out, every racecourse needs to be accreidted, the industry need to take time to understand it, and it needs to be funded. I have considered setting it up as a charity, in which case I could apply through external funding sources. The issue there is that – and the industry don’t seem to recognise this – it is a financial benefit to racecourses. We already love racing, so no one needs to convert us. They would sell more tickets and get more through the gates. I also gave up a full time career to run this, such is the demand, and obviously I have a mortgage to pay and children to feed, so this has to be viable for me to continue. At the moment, thanks to Unibet, the community element is, but that won’t get more people to the racecourse without safeguarding measures in place. So if anyone reading this would like to sponsor the project, or contribute to it, please get in touch!

Question 11 – For anyone who would like the support of GoracingGreen, or feels they may be able to help or contribute to the charity in some way, how can they help or get in contact with you? 
Please do contact me at debbie@novicefilly.co.uk – it would be great to hear from anyone who could offer any advice and support.


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