Since the infamous super spreader event of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, which has since been recognised as a major accelerator of coronavirus in the UK in the early stages of the pandemic, there has been a curiously cosy relationship between those in power and the world of the horse enthusiasts.
Except to say, ‘horse enthusiasts’ does not quite cover it. The Cheltenham Festival, the pinnacle of the social calendar of the Newmarket based Jockey Club, was originally known as the National Hunt Chase or the Grand National Hunt Meeting. Even nowadays the festival is indelibly linked to glorification of bloodsports, with a bizarre parade of huntsmen and foxhounds in front of a crowd of baying drunken supporters.
Surely this is just a quirk, an incongruous throwback to the origins of the event, a generous observer may think. The organisation of the festival is of course handled by the Jockey Club, headed up by the now infamous Baroness Diana “Dido” Harding, a follower of the Weston and Banwell fox hunt in Somerset.
That the Cheltenham Festival itself could go ahead, several days after the World Health Organisation itself had declared a global pandemic, seemed to fly in the face of logic. The Government’s most trusted yes-man, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, was wheeled out to placate the nation that scientific advice was of course listened to and, even though it now seemed as though hundreds of avoidable deaths were being traced back to the decision to allow this racing event to take place, he maintained that he and his pals had acted with only honourable intentions.
This seemed to lose a sizeable level of credibility when commentators pointed out that as MP for Newmarket, Mr Hancock and his local parliamentary campaign team were recipients of regular and sizeable donations from none other than Baroness Harding’s Jockey Club. In fact, research carried out by The Mirror, revealed in summer 2020 that Matt Hancock had received over £350,000 in donations from figures connected to the Cheltenham Festival itself.
The money-go-round does not stop here though. Surprisingly for a man of his undoubtable means, Matt Hancock in fact rented a home in his constituency near the horseracing Mecca that is Newmarket. In line with many other MPs, Hancock claimed back the rent for this pad via parliamentary expenses. What is less well known though, is that his landlord in Suffolk for many years was none other than Thurlow Hunt master Robin Vestey.
Yes, multi-millionaire-meat-magnate Robin Vestey, chairman of Vestey Holdings (a family company with a history of slave labour and tax avoidance who at one point were the second richest family in the UK after the Royals), and master of the criminal Thurlow Hunt, was for many years Matt Hancock’s landlord.
The final situation we find ourselves in, the head of a Suffolk fox hunt (convicted in 2019 of unlawful hunting after facing evidence submitted by Hunt Saboteurs), who also happened to be the ex-Chair of the Jockey Club, taking taxpayer-funded rent from a Government minister for several years. Coincidentally the subsequent chair of the jockey club Dido Harding, who also happened to be a fox hunter, managed to keep her biggest money-spinning event open despite coronavirus and a few hundred inconvenient deaths, and of course somehow managed to find herself selected by Hancock himself to head the doomed “NHS” Test & Trace service.
The message that repeats itself time and time again, is that hunters look after their kind first and everyone else be damned. Perhaps the leftover capacity at Baroness Harding’s vanity project could be used to trace just where all that money went…