Time for action on unacceptable risk of jump racing

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From: Dr Mark Kennedy, Senior Lecturer in Animal Welfare, Anglia Ruskin University

This year, as last year, the Grand National meeting has resulted in the deaths of three horses. Since 2001, 20 horses have died over the Grand National fences, 10 in the Grand National Steeplechase itself over the last 12 years.

Despite a review conducted in the aftermath of last year’s fatalities which resulted in changes being made to try and make the race safer, only 15 of the 40 horses reached the finishing post this year.

Gavin Grant, the chief executive of the RSPCA, has called the deaths at the Grand National totally unacceptable, and that in its current format the risks to the horses are inappropriate. I agree. The RSPCA’s racing consultant, David Muir, has stated that the number of runners, the number of fences, the length of the race and the type and design of the jumps need scrutiny.

A core issue which needs to be emphasised is that these fatalities are predictable; they are not freak accidents. The risk of fatal injury in steeplechases like the Grand National is six per thousand horse starts; in hurdling it is four per thousand horse starts.

So in large meetings with over 500 horse starts, such as the Cheltenham and Grand National meetings, we can expect two to three horses to die over the course of the meetings.

Because of this statistically-based expectation, these fatalities are the predictable outcome of running horses at this level of risk. Therefore no-one should really be surprised at the fatalities (or indeed at the five horse deaths at Cheltenham). The risk of fatal injury to horses competing in hurdling and steeplechasing is very high.

So let us place this in the context of a very common argument advanced by those resistant to change. They may say one cannot eliminate all risk from racing or from general use of horses; they can fracture legs in the paddock or suffer fatal injury being ridden out on the roads and therefore we should just accept the risk in jump racing.

This is simply a misleading and flawed argument.

Of course one cannot eliminate all risk to horses in using them; but the risk in jump racing is many times greater than that in many other equestrian sports. For example, the risk of fatal injury in racing on the flat is one per thousand horse starts; in steeplechasing six per thousand horse starts, thus steeplechasing is six times more dangerous than flat. As the UK’s most testing steeplechase, the risks in the Grand National are greater even than this.

It is the magnitude of the risk the horses are exposed to in the Grand National and jump racing that is the issue here; no sensible person would claim that risk can be eliminated completely.

Another false argument we may hear in the coming days, easily rebutted, is that horses are bred for jumping, so subjecting them to high levels of risk is acceptable.

Would those advancing this argument accept that as dogs are sometimes bred for the purpose of dog fighting this is acceptable? Of course not.

Yet another flawed argument is that racehorses are well cared for, and the risk of injury and fatality is a small price to pay for this first-class care.

Yet a fundamental concept in animal management and welfare is that the animal should receive good care throughout its life. Few would consider it appropriate for animals to experience poor welfare during slaughter, for example, even if their welfare was good prior to this.

Horseracing can only continue as an activity while the general public is tolerant of this use of the horse. Racing and the British Horseracing Authority have a very difficult problem on their hands. I personally do not have a right to demand a ban; it is for the BHA, racing, animal welfare groups and the general public to establish the way forward.

Yet when (quite justifiably) the language of unacceptable risk is being used by the animal welfare organisations that formerly gave racing qualified support it is time for the BHA and racing to take serious heed and act.