In Their Best Interests

A week ago, I thought I’d be writing about Victoria Pendleton. How important it was for racing to let her into our community, allow her to open it up and reveal it’s complex beauty to the world. Many loud voices in the sport shouted far and wide about the dangers she provided, a one-dimensional pessimistic point of view pointedly refusing to realise what they were doing. Are we ashamed? Terrified of opening ourselves up to a new audience and the vulnerabilities that come with it? Isn’t that exactly what contributes to diminishing viewing figures, deteriorating attendances and ageing fans? We can’t do that.

However the events of last week, the best week in National Hunt racing, were more distressing than blocking good publicity. It was the horses’ welfare. It is simply unacceptable for seven horses to die in the space of four days at one racecourse, irrelevant of the importance of the meeting (yet the publicity makes it more important).

Horse racing is an extreme sport. It’s hazardous, dangerous and life-threatening, yet this mix forms part of what makes it the second-largest spectator sport in Great Britain. I can live and love the sport so long as I believe everything is done to protect the wellbeing of both the horses and jockeys. Horses are cared for like royalty by their stable-hands, loved like one of the family by their owners and trainers and wisely looked after by their jockeys. However, still, seven horses died this week – and I don’t believe everything was done in their best interests.

The ground at Cheltenham this week was too firm for jumps races and… why? Why? That’s not a rhetorical question. Why exactly was the ground that firm? Despite claims from all kinds of officials that good ground is suitable for National Hunt racing, is that really true? The drainage system at Cheltenham is now so efficient most festivals are run on good going (all of the past ten have had good in the going description). Perhaps an important aspect in considering this is that, on the whole, it’s the first time many horses and jockeys have faced good going for the first time all season

Assessing the ground and the number of fatalities is a fundamental starting point.

2016 3 Good to Soft (Soft i-p) 1 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2015 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 1 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2014 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 2 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2013 0 Soft (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good to soft (Soft i-p)
2012 3 Good (Good to soft i-p)* 2 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2011 0 Good (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2010 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 1 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2009 0 Good to Soft (Soft i-p) 0 Good to Soft (Soft i-p)
2008 0 Good to soft 0 Abandoned (Wind)
2007 1 Soft (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good to soft (Good i-p)
2016 1 Good (Good to Soft i-p) 3 Good (Good to Soft i-p)
2015 0 Good (Good to Soft i-p) 0 Soft (Good to soft i-p)
2014 0 Good (Good to soft i-p) 2 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2013 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 0 Good to soft (Good i-p)
2012 0 Good (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2011 1 Good (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2010 0 Good to soft (Good i-p) 2 Good then Soft (Rain)
2009 1 Good to Soft 0 Good to Soft (Good i-p)
2008 0 Good to soft (Good i-p) 1 Good to soft
2007 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 0 Good to soft (Good i-p)
2016 7 GOOD
2014 5 GOOD
2012 5 GOOD
2011 1 GOOD

In 2014, the each day had the exact same going description as this Festival did. Five horses died that year. In 2012, five horses died while racing was run on, on average, even faster going descriptions. On the other hand, only one died in 2013 while on average the ground was softer and only one horse has died when ‘soft’ was the chief going description in the last ten years at the Festival (this was only three days in thirty nine, however). Taking the average of the going description from the four days, three of the four most deadly festivals in the last ten years have been run on good ground (2012, 2014 & 2016). Only one of the five least dangerous festivals (with only one fatality) was run on good ground (2011).

Digging deeper, the most upsetting going description has to over the passing of two greats in Garde Champetre and Scotsirish. On the first day of the Festival in 2012, the overall description was good. On the cross-country course however, it was officially good-to-firm – both the aforementioned ran on that course and tragically never returned.

Furthermore, is the ground exacerbated by the fact it is the first time horses and jockeys have raced on it since the summer? The previous major meeting, the Imperial Cup at Sandown, is typically run on heavy going as you can see from the following statistics. In the last five years, the ground has predominantly soft and no horse was killed. Furthermore, it highlights the sudden shock from heavy going to good going within the space of just a few days. Perhaps it is that shock of the ground that endangers the horse. Both horse and jockey are facing good ground for the first time and add that to the fathomable pressure to succeed at the most important fixture on the National Hunt calendar and you may have a mix that unacceptably jeopardises the welfare of our treasured horses.

Sandown Imperial Cup Day (Saturday before Cheltenham)

2016 0 Soft (Heavy i-p)
2015 0 Good to soft (Good i-p)
2014 0 Soft
2013 0 Heavy (Soft i-p)
2012 0 Good to soft (soft i-p)

These statistics are subjective, without due regard for each incident and examining their sometimes complex causes (such as a history of injury particularly in the case of Pont Alexandre who broke down away from the fences). Furthermore, are the times not suggesting that perhaps the ground is even firmer than the going description officially states? That the ground is actually quicker yet officials understand if stated so the fault would more easily be laid at their door. Even if these statistics are merely a coincidence, what has racing got to lose by ensuring the ground is slower? We have had a fantastic season – one of the best in a while – this year on soft and even heavy going conditions… what is there to lose? Last year, one of the biggest ever Gold Cup fields lined up on soft going for one of the best Gold Cups, eventually bravely won by Coneygree. This year, it’s fair to say the fast going helped next to none of the mere nine contenders.

If there is little to gain from fast going, but such tragic losses to lose, why not ensure each Festival is run on conditions no quicker than good to soft? Athletes suffer running on tarmac thus track events are run on special softer surfaces to help absorb shock, obviously a key component in horses jumping large fences and landing on hard ground. For the sake of slightly faster finishing times and for ‘fast ground’ horses is that really worth it? Is that in keeping with our commitment to the welfare of these beloved animals? Aren’t we simply increasing the risk we undertake, for such hollow reasons that we look back in agony minutes later. Minutes after a Festival we have looked forward to for nearly a year and will cherish so lovingly in our hearts for years to come. We love this sport and we love these horses. Why ruin that. Why risk it all for simply no reason at all.