Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Why is safety in horse racing the hurdle nobody will jump?

There comes a time to say simply and sadly, 'Enough.' Some of my most treasured memories involve watching horse racing with my late father.

We'd run through the form together, then he'd place last minute bets when struck by inspiration (or, more likely, exasperation), taking care to off-set my losses.

The Derby. The Oaks. The St Leger. The 1,000 Guineas - the very names make me want to have a flutter for old times' sake.

Even the more lowly race courses - Redcar, Uttoxeter, Hereford, Kelso, Plumpton - retain a special resonance, their names calling out from those long winter Saturday afternoons of childhood. The rising crazy clatter of racing commentary - any race - always makes me weirdly happy.

And, of course, prized above them all (yes, even more than the Irish invasion of Cheltenham), Aintree and the Grand National. It united neighbours, friends and colleagues in a good old democratic 'flutter' on the Greatest Horse Race in the World.

But that was then. Watching the carnage unfold last Saturday one could only conclude this isn't 'sport'. Jockey Peter Toole is critically ill after his mount crashed to the ground.

Two horses died: Ornais, of a broken neck, and Dooneys Gate, put down due to a broken back. Many horses fell. Others (the winner included) looked ready to collapse through sheer exhaustion as they struggled across the finishing line. Let's be blunt: when you get right down to it, isn't the National, for all its pomp and sentimentality mere cruelty masked as entertainment?

Sadly, for me, the answer is now 'yes'. Of course, Saturday's moral squalor was grossly compounded by the BBC - seemingly hand in hand with the industry and desperate to protect one of its few remaining sporting crown jewels - donning blinkers and refusing to see what was happening before its very eyes.

To its commentators, Ornais and Dooneys Gate weren't dying animals, but "obstacles". It took BBC online 45 minutes to report that the horses were dead. They wanted to get their facts right, they said. I wonder if they'll be so adverse to speculation the next time a footballer is severely injured?

The ironies piled up like failed betting slips, with Jason Maguire, rider of winner, Ballabriggs, being fined for excessive use of the whip. (Something even looneybins John McCririck sees as morally questionable.)

Of course some will say that in sport accidents happen, that Saturday was just one of those things. Supporters insist the industry is doing all it can to make the race as safe as possible.

But Saturday's deaths weren't unpredictable accidents. Speaking before the start of the Aintree meet, Dr Mark Kennedy, Senior Lecturer in Animal Welfare at Anglia Ruskin University, said: "The risk of death in flat racing is approximately one fatality per 1,000 horse starts and for steeplechases, such as those at the Aintree meeting, it is around six per 1,000 starts. On average then in the larger jump meetings, such as the three-day Grand National, we can expect around three horse fatalities.''

And guess how many horses died this year at the National meet? Yes, three. And who knows the long-term damage done to other horses?

These deaths are not flukes. They can be forecast with the same accuracy as the Assembly election results.

The price of Aintree and other big meetings is three horses, give or take. Or, put it another way, as a regular driver if you faced the same odds you'd be very lucky to live more than six months. If things go on as they are, 30 horses will die over the next decade during Aintree week. That's a statistical fact which the 'industry', the BBC and punters just can't ignore. These are not morally acceptable odds.

I'm not suggesting that horse racing or even the National should be banned. Without horse racing what would happen to these beautiful thoroughbreds? But racing must take a hard look at itself.

If the price for watching the most - to use a kind euphemism - 'challenging' horse race in the world is the all too predictable death of animals then more and more people are going to scratch themselves from the grubby spectacle.

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