Running for their lives: The 1999/2000 season

During the 1999/2000 National Hunt horse racing season, 247 horses were raced to death - that's one dead horse for every 31 who took part in National Hunt rules events.

In the first section of this special Animal Aid report – Running for their Lives – we take a look at the 1999/2000 National Hunt horse racing season.

‘It’s a very, very cruel sport, there’s no point glossing over it. Our fingerprints are in his blood.’

Phillipa Cooper, on the death of her horse Euology who broke his leg and was destroyed while racing at Sandown. (The Independent, December 11, 1999)

One in 31 horses dead

During the 1999/2000 National Hunt horse racing season, 247 horses were raced to death – that’s one dead horse for every 31 who took part in National Hunt rules events. This depressing and shaming statistic emerges from an Animal Aid investigation of the small print of racing industry data.

The victims either died or were killed following injury; or they were destroyed because they were not thought to be worth further investment due to their lack of racing ability.

The precise circumstances as to how and when horses met their end is not made public by an industry that prefers to shield punters from the consequences of their ‘harmless flutter’. But Animal Aid has been able to produce a telling, if partial picture, of the devastating price so many horses pay.**

Our analysis reveals:

  • Ninety-one of the fatalities occurred on an actual racecourse.
  • A further 58 animals perished off-course as a result of injuries incurred during the race itself.
  • An additional 98 horses were discovered to have died prematurely during the season – cause unknown.
  • At least 22 horses broke a leg or suffered other major limb damage.
  • Ten animals collapsed and died on a course – five of them dying during an actual race.
  • One victim was said to have ‘pulled up’ and was then ‘coughing’ following a race.
  • 39 were described as having ‘pulled up lame’ or finished the race lame before meeting their end.

How many of these 39 lame horses were killed purely for financial reasons rather than because there was no reasonable chance of them making a recovery?


Jockey Club tight-lipped

The answer is not forthcoming from the Jockey Club (JC), which won’t even provide racing correspondents with data on the nature of injuries suffered by horses who died or were destroyed on race courses – let alone details of deaths during training.

The information it does provide paints a thoroughly unreliable picture. The JC speaks of 176 fatalities during the 1999/2000 National Hunt and flat racing seasons ‘out of 78,101 runners’. But these 176 are animals who died only during, or immediately after, a race. It provides no information on horses injured during a race but shot off-course, nor on training deaths, nor on the large number disposed of because they were considered commercially inexpedient to keep.

The reference to ‘78,101 runners’ conceals an even greater truth. For this total does not represent the number of horses involved – as many people will assume – but the total number of times a much smaller number of horses ran. Our own detailed analysis of the form book indicates that some 7,700 horses actually took part in National Hunt races. Since, as detailed above, 247 of those horses died or were destroyed either on or off the course, the attrition rate is one horse dead for every 31 who raced during the season.

The Jockey Club also argues that there has been a significant annual drop in on-course fatalities between 1997 and 2000 (down to 176 from 237, despite a rise in the number of ‘runners’). But for so long as the JC refuses to publish anything other than the barest statistics, there is no way of testing whether this decline signals a genuine welfare gain or if it arises out of factors such as softer ground conditions caused by wetter weather; or from a policy or trend of deferring the destruction process so that fewer horses are registered as having died on-course.


Inexperienced animals prime victims

Of the horses who perished – whether during, or as a consequence of a National Hunt race – no fewer than 165 were inexperienced animals, or those rated as lacking ability. They had been running in Novice or Maiden races, or in contests that end with animals being put up for sale. Eight died during or following Hunters’ Chases – races for amateur riders and for horses who come directly from the world of fox hunting.

The ages of the 247 victims ranged from three to 14 years old, with the highest tally among eight year olds (a total of 44), followed by those aged seven (41), six (39) and five (33). The attrition rate reflects both the frequency with which these peak-of-fitness animals run compared with older or younger horses, as well as the consequent added stress to which they are subjected.

There were a great many factors, most of them predictable, which accounted for the fatalities during actual races: stiffness of fences, state of the racing ground, positioning of fences and layout of the course, the number of novice horses running and their lack of ability.

Shielding the public

Of course, the industry’s ruling bodies do their best to shield racegoers from the sight of dead and dying horses. At Musselburgh in Scotland, Midyan Blue, a 10-year-old chestnut gelding, fell in the last race of the day, shattering his leg. One punter described the horse’s injury as ‘appalling… there was just skin holding the leg on’.

Race officials quickly erected a large screen around the felled horse so that the paying public would not have a distasteful end to their day at the races. However, as Midyan Blue was being lifted into the back of a horse ambulance, the screen was accidentally lowered, thereby providing a full view of a vet sawing off the dead animal’s leg – a standard post mortem procedure for autopsy. The scene provoked an outcry in Scotland. Ardent defender of the industry, television commentator John McCririck, declared:

‘Someone must be held responsible. Tragedies can happen at any event but is there any need to parade it in public?… I’m always saying “come racing”, but if people go racing they don’t want to see this horror.’

(Daily Record June 20, 2000)

In other words, the problem for the industry is not the routine carnage but racegoers being able to get a close-up view of it.


Even the greatest fall

The first Cheltenham Festival of the millennium (March 14-16) saw the demise of Gloria Victis, a horse described as ‘the shining force of jumps racing’.

Just six years old, the French-bred steeplechaser was among the favourites to win the Gold Cup, even though he was a novice pitted against some horses nearly twice his age. Gloria Victis was being asked to negotiate 22 fences on a 3¼ mile premier challenge that was one of the most difficult courses in the country.

‘Thrust into the ranks of the professionals [and] asked to do a man’s job’, noted Andrew Longmore of The Independent, as he came to the penultimate obstacle, Gloria Victis fell in a heap, exhausted. He bravely struggled to his feet and was taken away in a horse ambulance. Damage to the young horse’s leg was said to be so severe (a shattered cannon bone) that he had to be destroyed.

Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler, quoted in The Independent (March 28, 2000), commented:

‘There has been far too much poetry about the death of Gloria Victis, as if he valiantly gave his life for a marvellous cause, when in fact he was the victim of a ruthless business that extracts blood from the animals it uses.’

Horses at the other end of the ability scale, as we’ve seen, are even more vulnerable to injury and death. A typical example was an eight year old named Aside The Sea. He ran in a novice chase – featuring big fences – at Fontwell racecourse. After smashing his leg, he was shot behind green coloured screens.

In novice hurdle events, smaller obstacles are jumped but at a greater speed, compared with chase events. Not surprisingly, the level of attrition is high – 91 during the 1999/2000 season. Among those 91 was Barton Bill, a six year old who met his end at Uttoxeter. As hot favourite, he was encouraged to set a rapid pace and hold the lead. After the sixth flight of hurdles, Barton Bill broke down, injured and in pain. Whether for welfare or financial reasons, he was destroyed.

Deaths around the country

A horse fatality occurred during or after a race at nearly every one of the 43 courses in the UK last season. Judging which tracks are statistically most dangerous is an enormously complex matter. But our analysis suggests that Haydock, Catterick and Cartmel as well as Aintree are particularly hazardous. The new and old Cheltenham courses also claim horses’ lives most years during the main racing festival held in mid-March.

No mercy for horses past sell-by

The 247 ‘visible’ victims last season conceal a much larger number of horses – uncounted by the industry – who come to the end of their careers and are disposed of out of financial expediency. These animals – perhaps a thousand or more every season – simply disappear from official records. The fate of the majority is to pass from owner to owner and eventually end up at a slaughterhouse or at a knacker’s yard to be converted into pet feed.

Only a small number will live out their natural lives in decent retirement. As with the injured, the sick, or those of lesser running ability, there is little sentiment, let alone money and time, expended by a self-serving industry on horses who can no longer produce a return.

**Our data was produced from an analysis of Raceform, plus racing media cuttings.

In the second section of Running for their Lives we take a look at the Grand National.