Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer jumping under pressure

I'm a huge fan of summer jump racing and think it's been a valuable addition to the racing calendar. However, few would deny that current equine casualty rates are a concern.
Here's my report on summer jumping from today's Guardian.

There are few sights more distressing in racing than the erection of the familiar green screens around a stricken horse but that sight has become common for fans of summer jump racing this year.
Last month two horses were killed at Stratford and four at Newton Abbot in the space of two days while another three runners lost their lives at Market Rasen last week. As the summer jumps season prepares for its showpiece meeting back at Market Rasen on Saturday, the disquiet over casualty rates is growing.

"The welfare of horses is severely compromised by summer jumping," says Dene Stansall, horse racing consultant for the pressure group Animal Aid. "Without a doubt it's more dangerous than traditional winter jump racing. The going is more likely to be fast and horses are more at risk on good to firm ground. Secondly, because the fields are usually smaller, the races are not truly run. What often happens is that there is a rush for the last fence."
Stansall, who runs the website horsedeathwatch.com points out that 24 horses have been killed in summer jump races since the season started on April 29.

The racing authorities do not deny there is a problem. Horseracing Regulatory Authority spokesman Paul Struthers admits: "From the data we have so far on summer jumping, the equine injury rate is currently running above the national average of just over 0.4% per runner for all jumping."
Struthers points out that all courses racing during the summer aim for ground no worse than good to firm while it is mandatory for all tracks to provide an annual report to the HRA.
He stresses the process is ongoing: "We are always looking at ways in which risks can be minimised and any new workable initiatives that can reduce injuries will be implemented. These are likely to include a focus on watering practices and the special treatment of take-off and landing areas."

The HRA's stance is backed by trainer Matt Sheppard, who knows the risks involved, having lost two horses of his own this summer. Nevertheless, the Herefordshire trainer is a passionate defender of summer jumping. "The horses I lost suffered injuries that could have happened at any time of the year. When it first arrived, summer jumping offered mainly low-grade racing, but it's definitely improved.
"Even trainers like Henry Daly and Nicky Henderson who were once vehemently opposed, are now having runners in the summer. It's always sad when a horse is killed, but I'm convinced that the authorities are doing all they can to make the sport as safe as possible. Watering policies have improved and when the authorities think the ground is unsafe they abandon."

Sheppard believes there would be significant economic fall-out if summer jumping were to be axed from the racing calendar - as Animal Aid would like.
"It would be hard for me to find work for the staff in the summer months if there was no jumping. The fact we have all year round jumping is good for smaller yards - it's very hard to compete with the bigger stables in the winter."

Sheppard's enthusiasm for summer jumping is not matched by all of his fellow trainers. Leicestershire trainer Ben Pollock says: "I don't see the point of it. The injury rate is higher. It's not just the ground, the trouble is that you have a lot of moderate horses going faster than nature intended them to go.
"The authorities have done a tremendous job, but I still think everyone - trainers, jockeys and staff - needs a break. Instead of summer jumping, we'd be better off rescheduling meetings for the winter so we could have three or four jump meetings a day. That would be a better way of giving smaller trainers a chance."

It is true that the quality of horses taking part has gradually improved. Take The Stand, winner of the Summer National in 2004, finished second in that season's Gold Cup, while the 2006 winner, McKelvey, was runner-up in this year's Grand National. And summer jumping has produced its own equine heroes, with the likes of Ei Ei and Maidstone Monument attracting loyal followings. Provided the authorities remain sensitive to concerns over equine safety, summer jumping seems set to stay for a long while yet.

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