Is horse-racing cruel? In the aftermath of the demise of Best Mate, many have stepped up calls for the sport to be banned. I think they are wrong. Here's my piece from today's Guardian.
A race to the death?
The demands of horse-racing extract a terrible toll in return for glamour and excitement Neil Clark
Thursday November 10, 2005The Guardian
Dawn Run, Gloria Victis and now Best Mate. As national hunt racing prepares for its first major meeting of the season at Cheltenham this weekend, is it not a good time to consider whether the price we pay for the thrills and spills of the sport is too high?
Animal Aid thinks so and believes that horse-racing should go the way of cock-fighting and fox-hunting and be proscribed by law. "Beneath its glamorous facade, commercial horse-racing is a ruthless industry motivated by financial greed and prestige," the group claims on its website.
Do they have a case? The casualty figures in racing, from a four-year audit by Animal Aid, make grim reading. On average one active racehorse a day is killed in Britain - around a third on the racecourse, the rest from injuries. While the three-times Gold Cup winner Best Mate made the headlines with his collapse at Exeter last week, he was not the only horse to lose his life that afternoon: the less-renowned Lady Percy was killed in a fall during an earlier hurdle race.
The risk of death, though greater when horses are asked to jump obstacles, is still present on the flat - as connections of Skye's Folly, killed in a horrific fall at Wolverhampton on Monday, know only too well. But although there is no denying that racing can, in the words of Gold Cup winning trainer Tom Taaffe, be "a very cruel game", those wishing its abolition would be guilty of inflicting a far greater cruelty.
Best Mate's death was tragic. But without racing, the horse population in Britain would be a fraction of what it is today. The nation's favourite racehorse - like the 17,000 other racehorses in Britain - was bred to race, and without the sport which Animal Aid wishes to see banned, would never have drawn breath in the first place.
In return for risking their lives every two or three weeks (or, in the lightly raced Best Mate's case, three times a year), most racehorses enjoy a cosseted existence, receiving five-star board and devotion from stable staff. The penalties meted out by the racing authorities to handlers who abuse charges are stiff - as Kamil Mahdi, warned off for 10 years for ill-treatment to horses, will testify.
And racing has also showed a determination to do all it can to make the sport safer. I will never forget the sickening sight of the fatally injured Brown Trix being dragged out of the stream at Becher's Brook in the 1989 Grand National: now, thanks to changes to the course, such an accident can no longer happen.
Fence modifications at Aintree and at Cheltenham have reduced casualty rates too. There has also been progress on racehorse rehabilitation: thanks to the efforts of Carrie Humble at the Thoroughbred rehabilitation centre, Michael and Helen Yeadon of the Greatwood rehabilitation centre and others, more ex-racehorses see out their retirement in the dignified manner they deserve.
More can still be done. The Jockey Club report into racehorse injuries, clinical problems and fatalities during 1996-98, found that softer racing surfaces were associated with fewer fatalities and injuries. Ensuring that the going at jump meetings is never "firm" - as it was at Ludlow for a race in November 2003, when two of the three runners were killed - but at the very fastest on the "good" side of "good-to-firm", is exactly the sort of practical measure which can save lives. The repositioning of fences which bring about a disproportionate number of casualties is another.
But horse-racing can never be totally safe. Best Mate never fell or looked like falling in his life, yet he still perished. The price he paid - and which other horses will continue to pay - is a high one. But even after the sad events of last week, it is still one worth paying.
· Neil Clark is a correspondent for Racing and Football Outlook