This Unsporting Life : National Hunt racing
Ill-equipped for the task
Until 30 or so years ago, horses destined for jumps were given time to mature - typically, in an Irish field - ready to begin racing at the age of five. No longer is such growing time commonly allowed. And there are other important recent changes in the shape of the National Hunt sector.
These specialist animals were once 'custom-made' for the task. They were selectively bred to be larger, more robust and with greater bone strength than their faster, sleeker counterparts racing on the flat. Notable sires of the jumping breed included Deep Run, Strong Gale, Menelek and Pongee. Today, with the emphasis in every part of the industry on speed, a large percentage of NH horses are simply cast-offs from the flat - animals who failed to make the top grade in that more profitable discipline. The planet is scoured for horses just below 'Group' ability who may give their owners an edge. French and German horses are popular. Horses from Australia, New Zealand and Argentina are also seen on British jumping courses.
There is a formidable range of obstacles confronting animals racing over jumps:
Hurdles are 3 ft 6 in. high when slanted, and have a relatively small spread compared with a fence. Their comparatively modest size belies the danger. Hurdles are jumped at greater speed than fences. Fallers are frequently killed, while other horses who are unable to react quickly enough in order to escape the falling animal, are brought down, with often fatal consequences.
Fixed Brush Hurdle
Based on the French hurdle design, these obstacles are similar to plain fences but lower in height. Unlike the traditional hurdle they are very rigid in construction.
Chase (Or Plain) Fences
The plain fence is made from compacted birch cuttings, bound and placed in a rigid frame. The density of the birch governs the fence's 'give' and 'stiffness'. Many courses, such as Cheltenham, Aintree and Warwick, have stiff fences, which means horses cannot brush through the top and are very likely to fall if they make contact with it. The fence has a standard height of 4 ft 6 in. with a spread of 8ft.
Open Ditch Fence
The open ditch is similar to a plain fence but its spread is 11ft. This extra spread is due to an open ditch on the take-off side.
The fence itself is 3 ft high and it has a 2 ft spread. It also features a shallow water pool, giving a total spread of 11 ft. Though comparatively small, water jumps kill two or three horses each season.
Two courses present a set of obstacles that break with the traditional format: Aintree's Grand National Fences and Cheltenham's Cross-country course.
The Grand National Course
The Grand National's fences are of variable height, with the most imposing being an open ditch known as The Chair. It is some 5 ft 2in. high and has a huge ditch and spread unmatched on any other racecourse around the world. However, there are other daunting fences to be jumped, including the infamous Becher's Brook that has claimed many horses' lives. On approach, Becher's seems like a typical National fence but the catch is on the landing side. Here, not only does the ground drop away so that it is lower than the point from which the horse takes off, but it drops lower on the side nearest the rail - the territory some jockeys would try to claim for the shortest route round. In addition, a water filled ditch lies at the foot of the fence, into which fallen horses have sometimes rolled back. Alterations over recent years have reduced the chances of 'roll-back' and the ditch is itself more shallow than in the past. These changes were made after a fatally injured horse, called Brown Trix, had to have his head held out of the water to save him from drowning, in a year when another horse was killed at the fence. But Becher's remains a very dangerous obstacle. The Canal Turn is another major hazard. On its other side, the course turns 90 degrees. This leads to most jockeys opting for an inside berth, causing horses to bunch and many to fall. The outstanding 'Roll A Joint' died at this fence.
Cheltenham's Cross-Country Course
Cheltenham's Cross-country course is a relatively new innovation. Inspired by equestrian events and the more variable layout of European courses, it is, in parts, without the standard running rail to guide the riders around. In fact, many riders have been suspended for taking the wrong route! It is relatively unsuccessful in racing terms due to its lack of pace. It serves purely as an eye-catching, incident-packed feature for specialist horses that has little appeal to owners and trainers other than the decent prize money on offer.
Positioning of obstacles
Favourable positioning of fences and hurdles is crucial to the safety of the race horse. There are many obstacles, however, that are deliberately set to catch out horse and jockey. These are described as 'trappy'.
Downhill obstacles are particularly nasty and cause many equine fatalities. This is due chiefly to the momentum gained as the animals approach the jumps and the difficulty they have of resisting the gravitational pull that makes jumping itself difficult. Even if they clear the fence rather than running into it, gravity can tend to bring them headfirst to the ground upon landing. The schooling of horses for such obstacles must be difficult, if not impossible, for many trainers - the high number of novice deaths at downhill jumps bears testimony to this. Cheltenham's downhills are notorious and over many decades have killed seasoned and novice horses alike. There was no sadder sight than that of Tardar, at the 2004 Festival meeting, who lay fatally injured, trying to lift his head, his ears twitching, as the other horses galloped away. His death was unseen by the roaring, excited crowds, having happened out in the 'country', and it received barely any mention by race commentators. Tardar's jockey was also seriously injured, and could have easily suffered the same fate as the horse.
Jumping too young
Another unpalatable feature of the racing calendar is the staging of chase events for four year olds. There is an argument that says the younger a horse starts jumping the better he or she will be. This is based on studies of European race horses. The Europeans, however, have brush-through fences and a mix of obstacles that 'school' the horse. They do not just drop animals in at the deep end.
The worst example of four year olds coming to grief during this report's study period, was at Warwick on November 23, 2003, in the Highflyer Bloodstock Four Year Old Novice Chase. The event was over two miles on fast ground. Six horses started, one was killed at the first fence; one blundered badly at the second, unshipping his experienced jockey; and a third horse took a very nasty fall at the last fence. Only three completed the course - the last horse trailing some distance behind the winner.
Too close too the start
Fences positioned too close to the start of a race can also be a problem. The Thoroughbred is known for nervousness and can take time to settle. If a novice is not settled at the first obstacle, and is fighting the bit, taking a pull, or if his eye is not in on the short approach, then danger looms quickly. Deaths are common at first flights. Red Halo at Warwick and Great Oaks at Plumpton are two examples from our study period.
Too close together
Similarly, if fences come quickly after each other - particularly in the home straight when the race is on, and exhausted horses are being pushed to their limit - then disaster is almost inevitable. From our study, Ludlow must be highlighted for its four fences in the straight after the home turn. The fourth last fence - known to jockeys as 'Tricky Trevor' - was moved off the bend because of complaints by the riders that it was a seriously dangerous obstacle. However, instead of being removed altogether, it has been squeezed into the straight, giving a daunting line of four for the horses to face. The consequences of this realignment were all too apparent with the death of two horses in a three horse race. The novices Sharp Steel and Occam were killed at these Ludlow fences on November 13, 2003.
Sanded roads over courses also frequently serve as obstacles, and at least one such fatality occurred during the study period. The victim was a young horse who tried to jump the road and broke a leg in the process.
The problem with visors
The use of visors may also have contributed to the annual death toll in jump racing. Animals wearing them for the first time are particularly vulnerable. Horses with visors run at increased pace, maybe through fear of not being able to see what is behind them. They may also have an obstructed view from the visor as they approach the obstacle. A fatal fall from increased speed and poor visibility can be the result.
Stiff fencesHorses also pay with their lives when falling at stiff fences. Many race professionals would argue against this comment, but the facts speak for themselves. The highly talented Behrajan suffered awful neck injuries and died at the same stiff fence at Warwick racecourse that killed the novice Red Halo.
The Grand National course at Aintree with its stiff fences has killed many, many horses over the years. Less well known to the public are the Mildmay fences situated inside the National course. These too are stiff. The great Desert Orchid was brought down to the ground here, and the top horse of the 1990s, One Man, died at a Mildmay fence that crashed him into the Aintree turf.
Stiffness of fences is variable. Fences are usually rebuilt every two seasons. When first constructed, the birch is compact and, if little leaf is left on the twigs, then there is hardly any 'give'. With time, the birch gets kicked out during races and the fence becomes a little 'easier', though repair is often required to maintain shape and size. Some racecourses, such as Doncaster, have fences that are portable and can be moved to better ground to suit the prevailing conditions.
Many trainers are reluctant to run their horses on Firm, or Good to Firm ground because of the hazards such conditions present. Where horses are required to race on such ground, many will hold back, since jarring can give rise to injuries. Horses who fall on this ground commonly die. Thus, while small fields of horses line up on firm ground, there is a greater than average opportunity for their owners and trainers to earn prize money.
If just three horses start, providing they jump all the way round on NH courses, or pass the finishing post on the flat, they are guaranteed a financial return. The Ludlow race mentioned earlier, where Sharp Steel and Occam both died in a three horse race, was a typical example of horses of limited ability being forced to take chances and paying with their lives. Owners, trainers, jockeys, the racecourse, the veterinary profession and the Jockey Club are all answerable.
Falls do not just affect the fallen
A welfare & financial problem
The falls of horses can cause chaos in a race and hamper other runners. Frequently, other horses are brought down and some fatally injured.
Welfare problems aside, injuries are financially extremely costly to race owners and trainers. Our study has found that, in the 2003/2004 NH season, no fewer than 454 horses who fell, or were brought down, did not race again that season.
Form book comments
The Form Book race readers sometimes register their own reaction to the pain and suffering of race horses, through the terms they use to describe falls. They include: Horrific, Heavy, Nasty, Ugly, Awful, Awkward, Crashing.
On the result of the fall, they write of the potential 'loss of confidence' and 'mental scarring' that will affect performance in future races.
All facts on death, injury and sickness must be made public
Through painstaking research of available data, Animal Aid demonstrates in this report that around 375 horses are raced to death every year. Most die young from broken necks, legs, backs, or from heart attacks. Even larger numbers are killed because they fail to make the commercial grade or because they have come to the end of their exhausting racing careers.
All these victims are individuals in their own right. We name many of them in our tables. Earlier Animal Aid reports revealed extremely high levels of stress-related equine injury and disease - notably, gastric ulcers and bleeding lungs. Collectively, our evidence points to an inherently exploitative industry that has little regard for the Thoroughbred workhorse on whom profits and glory depend. Animal Aid argue that it is an industry undeserving of the massive public support that comes its way through betting and racecourse attendance revenues. Nor should the industry, in our view, be allowed to regulate itself through the Jockey Club, or what looks set to be an equally unaccountable successor body, the Horseracing Regulatory Authority.
Are we right to argue that racing is intrinsically exploitative? How can the public make a judgement if the full facts about equine disease, neglect, injury, death and abandonment are concealed from them? We have worked hard to assemble and reveal what exists in the public domain. We call upon the Jockey Club to offer up for public consumption the complete truth. If the JC is so confident that racing can defend its reputation on the basis of proper disclosure, then, we say, put that confidence to the test.
In response to a written request for hard mortality data, Animal Aid received no answer. In fact, not even racing commentators are given such information. This is despite the JC's fondness for spinning out fine-sounding rhetoric: 'No issue', it likes to declare, 'has a higher priority for the Jockey Club than the safety and welfare of the horse.'
The truth has a way of leaking out. We have revealed a good deal of it in this report. The JC knows more. We say: it's time to come clean and let the public decide.
This concludes this special Animal Aid report into race horse deaths in British racing. For the full accompanying tables, please see the PDF version of this report. For updates to this campaign, please see the racing index.