This Unsporting Life: race horse deaths in British racing

An analysis of literally thousands of pages of racing results has revealed that no fewer than 375 horses are raced to death every year.

  • The horse racing industry has always concealed from the public, and even from racing correspondents, the number of horses raced to death every year. Information on mortality is becoming more, rather than less, difficult to obtain.
  • Animal Aid has conducted a study of available evidence – including 15,000 pages of race results – to produce the most comprehensive survey of Thoroughbred racing fatalities ever to have been made public.
  • Previous estimates – even by animal protection groups such as Animal Aid – have suggested a maximum figure of 300 annual equine deaths. Our new investigation shows that around 375 horses who are entered into races each season die from their injuries; or they are killed because they are considered of no further commercial value, even though they are young enough to continue racing. However, this total is almost certainly short of the true figure. This is because our data is drawn from the Official Form Book, which does not list all deaths.
  • Reasons for horses being destroyed include broken legs, back, neck and pelvis; fatal spinal injuries, exhaustion, heart attack, and burst blood vessels in the lungs.
  • To the 375 racing casualties must be added the far larger, but unrecorded, number of ‘inferior specimens’ who are disposed of annually before they ever get to race – and the animals who are killed at the end of their racing careers, instead of receiving a properly-funded retirement. These victims probably total several thousand annually.
  • This report concentrates on the racing casualties. About 30% of the 375 annual victims die on the racecourse itself. This is an extraordinarily high figure given that the 59 British courses each stage, on average, a mere 12 racing days every year.
  • While some 30% of annual fatalities occur during, or immediately after a race, the remainder are killed because of injuries received in training, or after being assessed by their owners as no-hopers.
  • The four most hazardous of all the country’s courses are run by racing’s own governing body, the Jockey Club. These are Cheltenham, Aintree, Warwick and Carlisle. From just 54 days racing at Cheltenham, there were no fewer than 21 on-course deaths.
  • Every year, many more Thoroughbred foals are produced than the racing calendar can accommodate. But such is the number of animals rated in the bottom third of the ability range that their owners often enter them into poorly-organised, under-funded events, where the going might be dangerously firm. This is in a desperate attempt to recoup their costs. Equine deaths come frequently on such occasions.
  • It is not unusual for two horses to die in a single race. Three fatalities at a single meeting is also common. 16 horses died on-course during just 16 days (from March 9 to March 24, 2004) – yet no formal action was taken. Nor was there any official response to10 on-course dead in just 8 days – from March 30 to April 6, 2002.
  • The majority of fatalities occur in jump racing. Horses used to be selectively bred for this sector. They were heavier-boned and more robust than the faster animals racing on the flat. Because of the increasing emphasis on speed in all racing sectors, horses entered into jump races are now more often ‘cast-offs’ from the flat. Deaths, as a consequence, are more common.
  • Downhill fences are especially dangerous because of the difficulty in resisting the immense gravitational pressures.
  • Another acute hazard are fences positioned too close to the start.
  • Subjecting novice horses to the same testing jumping conditions as experienced animals, will inevitably result in high rates of injury and death.
  • Aintree’s Grand National course remains uniquely challenging and horses continue routinely to die on it.

Published: March 2005 ISBN 0-9545115-8-1