It Comes Down To This

I have written several times about the death of racehorses. If you are a true horse racing journalist I don’t think you can shirk the issue, and if you are a true fan I don’t think you should ignore it. Here are some excerpts from my book, Around The Races In Eighty Days:

Saturday 11 April 2015

Somehow, despite the excitement and spectacle, the race has always been stalked by the shadow of death. This difficult and emotive issue is best exemplified by the furore after the 2012 Grand National, when two horses died and horse racing made the front pages for all the wrong reasons.

“He was trying to escape!” was one of the shrill and extraordinarily stupid statements I heard in the emotional aftermath, a comment directed at the scene when Synchronised got rid of Tony McCoy before the start and ran loose for a while. If people are so ignorant of the sport they are watching, it is no wonder that inflammatory headlines make reasoned debate almost impossible. Actually, after Synchronised was retrieved he started fine and was brought down by another horse, before galloping away riderless for several fences and then breaking a leg. He chose to continue. It’s what horses do.

Two others died at the three-day festival that year. According To Pete was brought down in the Grand National and Gottany O’s broke down on the flat in a hurdles race. The latter received much less coverage – the message from the media seemed to be that horses who died jumping fences were far more newsworthy than horses who died whilst just running.

How many of us remember the name of Great Endeavour? Few, I would think. He was an eight-year-old trained by David Pipe and winner of six of his 17 races, including the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham. This fine racehorse died the week after Synchronised, but his accident didn’t happen during a race watched by millions. He broke a leg running around his field at home where he had been turned out for the summer, but his sad demise didn’t make the News At Ten or the tabloid headlines. The simple truth is that to stop the deaths of horses you would have to stop the existence of horses.

So far you would have me down as a racing fanatic I suspect, cynical about the twisted attempts to portray horse racing as barbaric. And it’s certainly true that I find the sensationalist portrayal of this matter both misleading and unhelpful. But now I am about to break ranks with some of my fellow devotees and declare that we should all consider the deaths of horses carefully, and never stop examining our consciences in the light of new evidence. I thought the words of Gavin Grant, the Chief Executive of the RSPCA, to be mostly intelligent and balanced when he spoke the morning after the 2012 Grand National.

“We recognise racing is part and parcel of the fabric of our country but we’ve all got a responsibility as human beings – after all the horses haven’t got a choice, they can’t make the decisions – to make racing as safe as it can be.”

He was absolutely right to question the size of the field, the construction of the fences and the state of the going, and he did so in a rational way rather than resorting to crass hyperbole and lurid photos. Others were also right to question whether the changes made to the course before the 2012 renewal, where fences were modified to essentially make them easier, actually contributed to some of the problems by increasing the speed of the race. This is not a simple situation, and it will not be solved by knee-jerk reactions to the shrill clamour for change.

When you follow horse racing, as I do, you implicitly accept that its participants may die. It really is as simple as that. The same applies to motor racing, boxing, rugby and football. I’m not trying to be trite here, and fully accept that horse racing is inherently more dangerous than tiddly winks, however many safety measures you put in place. But I have looked at the figures and I am okay with following a sport that has the risk profile of horse racing. The probability of a runner sustaining a fatal injury in a UK race is about 0.002, or one fifth of one percent. I am not blasé to the consequences – the death of any horse is sad and some have reduced me to tears – but I am satisfied that the racehorse is very well looked after, the sport as a whole is well regulated, and that sufficient efforts are made to minimise the risk to both human and equine participants. I wish the death rate was lower, and would welcome suggestions on how to achieve that, but I understand that there are no miracle cures.

The crazed reactions to sad events by lunatics who purport to stand in the name of animal rights should not bully us into sticking our heads in the sand and saying it’s all fine. Only with constant and honest appraisal can we truly say our consciences are clear. And it is obvious that both the BHA and the Aintree executive are willing to make those appraisals and changes. Fences have been moderated, landing areas modified, run off areas introduced and watering increased to ensure safer ground. You may not have noticed it, because it was changed without much fanfare in 2013, but the race is now shorter than it was in order to move the start away from the hubbub of the stands and reduce the run to the first fence.

Could more be done? I don’t know, is the honest answer, but I would be willing to consider any new evidence or ideas. I’m not sure it’s reducing the field size, though, as this has been studied in depth previously and recognised that the average width of fence per runner is no different to most other courses. The Grand National could be made very safe by limiting the field to ten, removing the fences and reducing the distance to 5 furlongs, but then it would no longer be the Grand National in most people’s eyes. Even then, significantly, you could not guarantee the absence of fatalities.

To me, this is no more sensible a solution than restricting the top speed of every car in the country to 10mph in order to reduce the death-toll on our roads. But, and this really is key, it is absolutely right that we consider it before dismissing it. We have a responsibility to continually question the world around us to see if it can be improved.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

It had taken 61 days of my quest before I was present at the death of a horse, and it cut me to the bone. I had several fanciful ideals when I started out – I wanted to be ahead with the betting, I wanted the project to be a success, I wanted to discover a new direction in my post-teaching tundra, and I really wanted them to all come home safe and sound. My odyssey had been challenging and difficult in so many ways, but now the shadow of a horse dying would forever taint its tapestry. The only thing I could be thankful for was that I hadn’t witnessed the tragedy close-up, but I knew that was a vain straw at which to grasp and was certainly no consolation to Allerford Jack or his connections.

I’m not going to tell you that I considered stopping my tour, because I didn’t. I had seen horses dying whilst watching the sport I loved before, and whilst it had always been a terrible and sickening thing, I had managed to move on. However, I’m also not going to tell you that my views were, or are, set in stone either. If I saw a fatality at Bath later, would that change my mind? Two? Five? If 17 horses died in the remaining 17 days of my quest, would that change my mind? I didn’t know back then, just as I can’t tell you now, exactly where that line lies. But there is a line, in there somewhere in the midst of those numbers, and I shall know when it has been crossed. For me to tell you otherwise would be terribly conceited and inhumane, not to mention entirely untrue.

When friends have asked about the matter, I have never really come up with a perfect response. Yes, I watch horse racing and some of them die, but I still watch horse racing. At the moment, I am okay with the numbers involved. In the future, there may come a time when I am not. That is the stark truth of the matter, and any clever words about “well looked after”, “risks are minimised” and “could die running around a field at home” will not change that.

Of course, I write once more about this desperately difficult topic because of the events on Saturday at Cheltenham. Starchitect broke his hind leg on the flat in between fences. He did not seem to make a jumping mistake or sustain injury before that moment. He did not seem to slip on dangerous ground or put his foot in a hole.

I could rewind the incident many times to see if I can spot any clues but I really don’t want to. I love horses, I think they are beautiful animals, and I am desperately sad that this one is now dead. How good he was is irrelevant. Whether I had backed him is irrelevant. Whether he would have won is irrelevant. The only important thing is that he is now dead.

It comes down to this: if you watch horse racing you accept that you may see a horse die. I’m not sure this is as true or as real a possibility in any other sport that we watch live. We may see footballers or other sportspeople break legs, sometimes very badly and it is gruesome to watch, but they don’t die because of it.

I do not know how many horses I have seen die over the years. It is a statistic that has been lost through the ages by a desire to forget the ghastly. But here is one startling statistic that may stand the test of time: 0 – the number of racehorses I shall watch dying in the future?

However much work the authorities do to try and make the sport safer, and I believe they are well-intentioned and doing their upmost to do so, and I believe they have made it safer, if I continue to watch horse racing I will continue to see horses die. The only way to stop the pain, for me at least, is to stop watching.

Full credit to the much-maligned Matt Chapman at the end of the ITV Racing programme when, with many of his colleagues not quite knowing what to say, he addressed the issue head on. He talked about the differences between human and equine legs, the way they function and the way they break.

He spoke about the difficulties in the treatment of horses and the way things would almost certainly go wrong and result in further pain. He made it clear – if a horse breaks a leg like Starchitect did, there is no hope.

And so now I have to face that question that I mentioned in my book two years ago: when is enough enough? When do I not want to look any more? I shall take that question into my extended Christmas break – I owe Starchitect, and all the others, that much at least.

I am sorry to end my third year of this blog on such a downbeat note, but after the events of Saturday I really had no choice. I wish you all a restful and happy Christmas, and a healthy and successful New Year.