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Opinion Horse racing is still off course on animal welfare

As the sport rakes in millions during its high season, STEVEN WALKER warns that horse deaths will continue until authorities make meaningful safety reforms

WITH the Grand National only a couple of weeks away following the Cheltenham Festival, almost all eyes remain firmly on the runners, riders and betting odds.

These are multimillion-pound events, fuelling the surge in online gambling prompted by pandemic lockdowns. They are “blue-riband” events with corporate sponsors falling over themselves to get brand exposure and rich horse owners feted by a craven media. But behind the scenes is an ugly secret barely receiving any attention.

Each race meeting results in the needless deaths of horses due to lack of fitness, extreme stress, hazardous conditions and jockeys pushing the animals too hard. One horse died at Cheltenham this year, maintaining the so-called festival’s grim record as the meeting with the highest numbers of horse deaths in Britain. 

Since the start of Animal Aid’s count in 2007, 2,190 racehorses have died in Britain. To take just one year, the RSPCA described the figure of 202 deaths from 93,004 runners in 2018 (a rate of 0.22 per cent) as “not acceptable.” It reported that there were 65 deaths on the flat that year, up from 47 in 2017, and 137 jump-racing fatalities, up from 120 the year prior.

Figures from the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the sport’s regulator, reveal that 2018 had the highest number of racing-related deaths in six years, with 201 horses fatally injured during competition. But it’s not an isolated issue: in 2006 eleven horses died over the four-day Cheltenham “festival,” a further five horses died in 2012, while seven died in 2016. There were 12 horse deaths between 2000 and 2019 at the famous Aintree racecourse’s three-day meet, during which the Grand National is run.

Horses often die in excruciating pain due to broken backs or heart failure. The cost of treating a broken leg or other serious injury and caring for the animal is dismissed as too expensive for the millionaire owners. So injured horses are shot at close range and sent off to who knows where.

The heart of the problem is that the racing industry largely controls its own welfare policy. Representatives on behalf of the BHA, racecourses, horse owners, trainers and jockeys are all sat on the new “independently chaired” Horse Welfare Board.

It creates a conflict between a monetary profit-based enterprise culture, where horses used commodities for entertainment and gambling, and the cost of meaningful welfare reforms. The latter is losing out, as reflected in the sheer volume of horse deaths that occur.

Even basic welfare reforms have not been implemented. Just one example is the use of the whip, which is often connected with horse deaths. The use of whips cannot be justified given that performance is influenced more by genetics, preparation and rider skill. Yet the BHA continues to allow it at the expense of the horses who race on British racecourses.

The underlying problem is that horses are pushed to their physical and mental limits, and too often beyond them. The BHA is so out of touch with events that its 2019 fatality figure could only account for 173 horses when Animal Aid counted 186. The charity openly challenged the BHA to explain its poor record of accountability. The discrepancy shows up racing’s inadequate data collection and analysis as well as its lack of transparency. 

Another piece of equipment used on racehorses – the tongue tie – is opposed by the RSPCA due to the discomfort and pain it can inflict. It is a piece of nylon or elastic that is wrapped tightly around the horse’s tongue and tied to the lower jaw to keep the tongue in place during a race. Restricting the movement of the tongue in this way causes discomfort and can lead to permanent injury.

But despite their adverse impacts, the use of whips and tongue ties is officially endorsed by racing authorities.

Racehorses are at risk of harm during races, training and trials, with injuries mainly involving muscle, bones, tendons and ligaments. Serious injuries such as fractures and ruptured ligaments or tendons cause pain or distress. If horses can’t be treated they are often immediately euthanised. 

Racehorses can die suddenly, during or after a race, due to heart failure or other issues such as exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage, where bleeding into the lungs occurs. This has been related to overexertion after horses have been pushed too hard to win.

Considerable pain can be experienced in relation to acute injuries when horses do survive, as evidenced by lameness. The healing process and treatment regime can also involve a serious amount of pain.

Horses often require longer rest periods than what is currently practised in the racing industry, to allow bone healing and recovery.

The industry does not provide collated statistics on injuries and the fate of racehorses so a true figure of overall injuries is not available. The RSPCA supports the mandatory collection and publication of comprehensive lifecycle and injury statistics for all racehorses.

And despite being illegal, doping of horses has been undertaken by some trainers and owners as a way to enhance performance. Random testing of horses is carried out by racing stewards with significant penalties for breaches, but this still does not deter some trainers.

For example, in 2014, Newmarket trainers were found to be using banned substances on horses owned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai.

And this year, trainer Charles Byrnes was fined €1,000 (£885) and had his licence suspended for six months after Viking Hoard was subject to “a dangerous degree of sedation” in a hurdle race at Tramore in 2018.

Horse racing, often dubbed “the sport of kings” and patronised by the current monarch, enjoys a privileged status.

It fuels a gambling industry making billions of pounds from ordinary working-class punters, fostering gambling addiction, poverty and debt, while millionaire owners enjoy huge rewards.

But mainly it exploits and abuses defenceless animals for profit.

The industry needs wholesale reform, beginning with a truly independent regulator that puts animal welfare at top of the agenda.

It needs much more effective policing of race-fixing doping, a horse welfare tax on betting companies, and the banning of whips and tongue ties.

And it needs much stronger financial penalties against crooked trainers and owners.


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