After the thrill of seeing a Grand National winner being roared home from the elbow to the finish line, there is always the undercurrent of anxiety in the minutes that follow while we wait to hear news of the other runners. Celebrations of One for Arthur’s outstanding performance this year were already well underway when it was confirmed, for the fifth consecutive year, that all the remaining horses were home safe and sound. The celebrations could continue unabashed as everyone associated with the sport breathed a collective sigh of relief. Whether this was due to the numerous adaptations made over the years to improve safety, or the cumulative effect of all our crossed fingers, this was the best possible outcome for the race by which our sport is judged.
ITV racing highlighted welfare from the outset, detailing the measures in place to care for the horses after the big race in a cooling off area supervised by veterinary staff. But raising awareness of racing’s ongoing commitment to welfare is a welcome presence via any form of coverage, as there will always be a gap to be bridged between perception and truth.
My fascination with the Grand National began at an early age. It intrigued me and scared me in equal measure, and it was this annual spectacle which drew me into racing as a whole many years later. The risk associated with the Grand National itself was obvious and, as I made my first tentative steps into the wider racing world, I soon realised risk wasn’t restricted to one Saturday afternoon in April but was an inherent part of the sport. I was troubled by negative content found on the internet regarding horse welfare, and further still by the opinions offered by people who didn’t seem to have any connection with the sport but felt qualified to judge it, and their verdict was damning. Having no preconceptions about the sport myself didn’t matter, because there were plenty enough to go around.
Unable to distinguish fact from fiction, I had the choice of walking away or of immersing myself further to find out more. There was no vested interest in doing so, only the personal responsibility of doing all that I could to hold the sport up to the light and consider it in detail, warts and all. Of the many sweeping statements I’d come across, the bullet theory was frequently quoted – that as the rule and not the exception, horses who are unable or unwilling to race are shot, racehorses who sustain injuries which are expensive to treat are shot, and racehorses facing retirement are, yes you’ve guessed it, shot. But the suggestion that racing had more bullets flying through it than the O.K. Corral just didn’t match up with what I was seeing for myself. Not wishing to ruin anyone’s street cred, the members of the racing community I’d already come across in those early days just seemed to be really …. nice. Was I missing something?
Becoming a member of a racing club proved a sound decision to support my fact-finding, giving access to the experience of racehorse ownership under the guidance and expertise of those with a lifetime of wisdom. It says a lot about a sport when it is open and welcoming to someone whose knowledge base on arrival is barely above zero. But what I lacked in experience I made up for with enthusiasm. Information was readily available, questions were always answered honestly, and the insight it gave me into the lives of the horses and the staff who care for them was, and remains, second to none. The spectre of risk is ever present, from the breeding barn through to retirement, but the dedication and concern of the teams who tend to the horses’ daily needs is something to behold.
Whilst high standards of care were evident within training yards and racecourses, I was unsure about the efforts being made by the industry as a whole. The ongoing debate about the whip rules is a healthy indicator of a sport which acknowledges the power of public perception, and the need to embrace a culture of change based on consultation and transparency. The level of financial investment by the industry in horse welfare also shows it isn’t paying lip service to the cause, but is committed to it. In the last 53 years, British horse racing has funded in excess of £55 million of equine veterinary research via the Horserace Betting Levy Board to improve the health and welfare of the Thoroughbred horse. Significant advances in the understanding, prevention, and treatment of diseases and injuries have resulted from this. There’s an obvious focus on issues directly relevant to racing as you’d expect, but there are also research projects and scholarships which benefit every member of the horse population, from Shetlands to Shires, through the exploration of conditions affecting them all, such as parasites, colic, and arthritis.
The Racing Foundation was established in 2012 with funding from the government’s sale of the Tote, and each year it gives grants to charities linked to the UK horseracing and Thoroughbred breeding industry. Improving horse welfare is one of the foundation’s key aims, and recipients of its support to date include: HEROS (Homing Ex-Racehorses Organisation Scheme), New Beginnings, Racehorse Rescue Centre, Moorcroft Racehorse Welfare Centre, The Royal School of Veterinary Studies, The University of Glasgow, Retraining of Racehorses, Greatwood, and the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre.
Good practice cannot be judged by money alone, but this level of support shows the sport acknowledges its lifelong responsibility to the large numbers of horses brought into the world each year for its purpose, good practice which will never be particularly newsworthy. After Master Minded’s injury in the 2011 King George, Paul Nicholls used his Betfair blog to give a detailed account of events and express his gratitude for the veterinary care which ultimately saved his horse’s life,
‘it is debatable that any of our top sportsmen and athletes would have got such world-class medical attention on Boxing Day – and that speaks volumes for our sport, and its love and commitment to its horses.’
However hard the sport works to improve welfare for racehorses during and after their career, and the awareness which exists within its own walls, the challenge it faces is in communicating that message beyond the racing community. The Horse Comes First Campaign was set up to do just that, as a collaboration of the British Horseracing Authority, Racecourse Association, Racehorse Owners Association, Professional Jockeys Association, National Trainers Federation and the Jockey Club. Sustaining the flow of information is essential because if there’s a gap in the narrative of our sport, people will fill it themselves. It’s human nature. When A P McCoy stood on stage to receive his lifetime achievement award at the Sports Personality of the Year, the first words of his acceptance speech were dedicated to thanking the horses he’d ridden and the stable staff who looked after them so well. Whether planned or spontaneous, he seized a powerful opportunity to inform and influence public perception, and the lofty pedestal I’d already placed him on rose another foot or two as a result.
No amount of rhetoric can give a rose-tinted lacquer to the sport’s darkest days, and the afternoon we lost Many Clouds was grim. But what this shared experience demonstrated so effectively was the impact it had on everybody in the sport, from his devastated connections to the spectators lining the racecourse and the audience at home or online. There was no cold indifference to the loss of an asset which had yet to yield its maximum return, only genuine and heartfelt grief for one of our superstars, and compassion for those closest to him who faced the long journey home to an empty stable.
Perception is unique to the individual, formed by a blend of experience and information, and mine has been honed by immersion in the sport. I’m not naïve enough to believe every racehorse skips off into the sunset to live a happy retirement, but I’m heartened by racing’s efforts to make this a reality and the emotion at Sandown when Menorah’s retirement plans were announced encapsulates everything I want the sport to be. The scale of the operation is huge and it can’t achieve this on its own, so a donation here and there to the welfare charities is the least we can do in return for the enrichment these horses bring to our lives. Let’s dig deep.
There is one risk to be aware of, though, when holding the sport up to the light to see if its standards of care meet your own expectations – you may well find it peering back at you, as I did. The expertise of the thousands of staff who form the backbone of racing is beyond the realm of text books or seminars. They tend to their horses for modest pay in all weathers, living by these standards day in, day out, and their challenge to us is to do the same. A benchmark which spirals ever upwards encourages all of us to take a good look at ourselves and aim to do a bit better for the animals in our care, and as a legacy for welfare, that must be a risk worth taking.