This Unsporting Life : The Jockey Club - welfare
It is not uncommon to see two or three deaths in one day at courses around the country, or even multiple fatalities at a single course. Injuries - some of which subsequently prove fatal - are also daily occurrences.
While researching this report, Animal Aid made a formal request to the Jockey Club for data on horse deaths. At the time of writing - several weeks after asking - no response has been forthcoming. This tight-lipped approach extends to racing correspondents. They are provided with no data on the nature of injuries suffered by horses who die or are destroyed on racecourses - let alone details about deaths during training.
Animal Aid searched the JC website during February 2005 and found confident claims about the organisation's alleged proactive welfare role. The pronouncements appear not to have been updated since the year 2000 - a matter of some significance given that Animal Aid's research shows that there has been no improvement in the lamentable rate of death and injury to racehorses since we first began our detailed research some five years ago.
Taken from the Jockey Club Website (www.thejockeyclub.co.uk) are the following comments:
'No issue has a higher priority for the Jockey Club than the safety and welfare of the horse.'
'An invaluable tool in expanding the welfare role has been the introduction of a veterinary database. The lameness and injury data collection scheme improves racehorse safety because it monitors the return to racing by horses who have been off the course through injury. The database also allows structured analysis of all injury data to help identify possible factors increasing the risk of injury. Jockey Club Veterinary Officers are responsible for all data recording to maintain consistency.'
The website goes on to refer to a number of ongoing studies of risk factors associated with horse injury and death. It also boasts of having devised improved specifications for horse ambulances.
Structured analyses, ongoing studies and better ways to carry off the dead and injured are all very well but what is missing from the JC's approach is any meaningful effort to address known, avoidable causes of injury and death. Some obvious ways would be to remove downhill fences and to prevent novice horses from being subjected to the same testing racing conditions as experienced animals. The implementation of just these two steps would produce a dramatic reduction in injuries and deaths.
Among the most deceptive statements on the JC website is the following:
'Fatal injuries in racing are relatively uncommon but, as in any sport, there is an element of risk for the participants.'
As this report highlights, one racing-age horse dies, on average, every day of the year. The Jockey Club knows this. It also knows that the equine participants have no choice but to race, and that their riders will invariably lash them en route to the finishing line with a narrow plastic rod, the 'whip'. (For further information, see 'A Hiding To Nothing', a 2004 Animal Aid report on use of the whip in racing.)
Deaths on Jockey Club courses
The Jockey Club is well-placed to know all about on-course equine fatalities, given the number of animals who perish at the 13 racecourses it operates through the Racecourse Holdings Trust. Its estate is as shown right.
This report demonstrates that - during our study period - not only were the most dangerous of Britain's 59 racecourses all JC-owned, but that Jockey Club courses scooped more than one top place in the mortality leagues - particularly where jump racing is concerned. During the 200½002 NH season, Aintree and Haydock were first and third on the list. The following year, Carlisle, Cheltenham and Aintree filled the top three spots. In NH season 2003/2004, Cheltenham, Warwick and Carlisle were the deadliest. Cheltenham alone, saw 21 deaths in just 54 days' racing.
Market Rasen and Huntingdon also had depressingly high numbers of dead horses on their consciences. In all, 104 fatalities occurred on JC courses over the study period.
7 large courses:
- Aintree NH
- Cheltenham NH
- Epsom Flat
- Haydock Park NH/Flat
- Kempton Park NH/Flat
- Newmarket Flat
- Sandown Park NH/Flat
6 smaller courses:
- Carlisle NH/Flat
- Huntingdon NH
- Market Rosen NH
- Nottingham Flat
- Warwick NH/Flat
- Wincanton NH
Number of horses bred
The British and Irish breeding industries are closely linked and together produce thousands of foals annually. The steady annual increase prompts an important question: Is the racing industry in the 21st Century, 'Breeding to Race', or 'Racing to Breed'. The latter formulation would be hot favourite with any bookie.
If you have a Classic-winning three-year-old Thoroughbred, the temptation is to rush off to stud - and most do.
The world's current most fashionable - and highly lucrative - stallions are all descendants from the late 20th Century sire Northern Dancer. They are Saddlers Wells, Storm Cat and, more recently, Giant's Causeway. In a single season, one sire can be used to impregnate 100 mares. The offspring are themselves then nurtured as prospective breeders, with the owners looking to get a result from them in a Classic or other Group race so that the animal's status is assured and the money-driven breeding cycle can start again.
The new progeny are soon in the Foal and Yearling Sale Rings, where the big money is to be earned. Tattersalls, Goffs, Doncaster and Ascot are some of the high-status salerooms in Europe, whilst Keeneland in Kentucky is the world market leader. Storm Cat's offspring averaged $1.68 million at the 2001 yearling sales.
A horse's development takes five years from birth to maturity. The shape and structure of the body go through many changes during this period, with animals more or less vulnerable at different times in terms of their bone and cartilage development. Among the problems faced by modern race horses is that no proper account is taken of these vulnerabilities. To require four year olds, for instance, to jump stiff 4ft 6in. chase fences is to expose them to an unacceptable risk. Our report bears out this point with depressing clarity.
Equally, the close bloodlines of the breeding industry have given rise to equine health problems that are increasing over time. The loss of bone strength in favour of speed is all too apparent in the number of casualties that are highlighted in this report.
(See also Animal Aid's 'Riding For A Fall - The Genetic Time Bomb at the Heart of Racing')
The race horse
An athlete from an early age
The majority of Thoroughbred race horses are born between January and June but all are given an official first birthday of January 1 of the following year. They can start to race from the March of their second birthday, even though, as individuals, horses develop at different rates.
Requiring horses to perform to constant standards during their growth years is unreasonable. The harsh training regime and the demands of race-day will sooner or later adversely affect their well-being.
Top-rated young colts and fillies can burn out very quickly - failing to procure for their 'connections' the anticipated 'Classic' win by the age of three.
A recent example of stress-related early burn-out - compounded by extreme in-breeding - is the top rated two year old Irish-trained, American-bred colt, called One Cool Cat. Another is the French-trained, American-bred, Denebola. Both highly-inbred animals displayed performance setbacks and One Cool Cat retired to stud, aged three, before he even reached maturity. It is not uncommon to see a 100,000 guineas saleroom star fallen by the wayside, trying to jump hurdles on a windswept National Hunt racecourse instead of racing on the usually more lucrative flat.
Animal Aid has found that of the 127 on and off course fatalities that occurred during the 2000 flat season, no fewer than 76 of the horses (nearly 60% of the total) were younger than five years. Heart failure, bone breaks and fractures were the common causes.
Structure and objectives of the racing calendar
The calendar of annual racing events is orchestrated by the British Horseracing Board. The programme is based on established races and meetings, and new initiatives that the BHB believes will benefit racing as a whole. However, with an escalating number of horses being bred every year, owners and trainers are often so desperate to enter their animals for a run that they will opt for events where the race conditions are ill-suited to their horse's needs.
It is animals with the lowest rating - i.e. those with the least running ability - who suffer most. In the hope of picking up small amounts of prize money, such horses, in one year, might be entered into a stressful combination of All Weather, Turf Flat, Hurdles, Chase fences or even in Point-to-Points.
In an effort to provide races for these horses at the bottom of the handicap, 'Banded' races were introduced in January 2004 on All Weather courses. However, such are the numbers of animals rated in the bottom third of the ability range that hundreds still cannot be accommodated. These poorly-organised and grossly under-funded races have been crudely described by television pundit, James Willoughby, as 'meatball racing', such is the respect accorded to horses in this category.
National Hunt (jump) racing also tries to accommodate low-ability horses - by staging events in which only unpromising prospects can take part. They are known as 'selling' races and, as the name suggests, the equine participants are offered for sale at the end of the proceedings, even though, in reality, only those who perform well are likely to attract a bid. The problem with 'sellers' is that owners - who may simply have entered a horse hoping to win a little prize money and who do not wish to part with their animal - have to respond to bids. Either they sell or attempt to outbid any competition and retain their own horse. Through this process, horses can pass from owner to owner, with serious welfare problems resulting.
Unequal distribution of prize money
The amounts of money to be won by owners of winning animals vary dramatically. Flat racing takes the dominant share, with Group and Listed races offering huge sums to the winners. More significantly, post-retirement stud fees accruing to the winners of such races provide even greater rewards to owners. At the other end of the scale, Selling and Banded races offer one or two thousand pounds to the winner and a couple of hundred for a placed horse. This means that less able horses must run more races in often extremely challenging conditions in order to try to cover training and vet costs. Towards the same end, the owners and trainers of such horses will often place bets on their animals - a situation that gives rise to suspicions of race-fixing when betting odds change dramatically as a result of sudden influxes of money.
Two extreme examples of the variable value of horses are as follows:
- 2003 Epsom Derby £852,600 went to the winner. Even the third place horse won £161,700. Potential Stud Fees are £50,000 for each mare 'covered'. If 150 such coverings are made in a year, total stud earnings would be £7.5 million.
- 2003 a Market Rasen Selling Hurdle Win Prize Money: £1,810 - 3rd Place: £259. There was no bid for the winner - 9 year old Count Tony. Hopefully, his owners will give him a decent retirement in the not-too-distant future.
Common fatal injuries relating to racing
Horses are destroyed due to:
- Broken legs from the shoulder to the coronet
- Tendon and ligament injuries
- Deep tissue damage, after being 'struck-into' by another horse
- Damage caused by back hooves striking front legs - known as over-reach
- Broken necks
- Broken backs
- Broken pelvis
- Fatal spinal injuries
- Heart attacks
- Internal injuries - e.g. burst blood vessels in the lungs
Click here for part 3 of This Unsporting Life, in which we take a look at National Hunt Racing, including the Grand National course.