This Unsporting Life : Introduction
Among the best kept secrets in British sport is the scandalously high number of racing-age Thoroughbred horses who die every year. They die as a result of injury, heart attack or some other performance-related condition - or they are killed simply because they no longer make the commercial grade.
Previous estimates - even by animal protection groups such as Animal Aid - have suggested a maximum figure of 300 annual casualties. This was based on the limited information available through official and unofficial industry sources. In the five years since Animal Aid has been compiling an ongoing audit of racing's animal victims, published data has become even more scarce.
Undeterred, we have spent more than six months conducting an analysis of literally thousands of racing results going back four seasons. We have also scrutinised thousands of races broadcast on television. What emerges is a far more depressing picture than was previously imagined. Around 375 horses who are entered into races each season die, or are killed by the end of it. This is in addition to the far larger, but unknown, number of 'inferior specimens' who are disposed of annually before they ever get to race - and the animals who receive a bullet through the head at the end of their racing careers, instead of a properly-funded retirement. These victims probably total several thousand per year.
This report concentrates on the racing casualties. Of the 375 who perish annually, about 115 - or 30% of the total - die on the racecourse itself. This is an extraordinarily high figure given that the 59 British racecourses each stage, on average, a mere 12 racing days every year.
Incredibly, our survey indicates that the four most hazardous of all the country's courses are run by racing's governing body, the Jockey Club. These are Cheltenham, Aintree, Warwick and Carlisle. From just 54 days' racing at Cheltenham, there were no fewer than 21 on-course deaths.
While some 30% of annual fatalities occur during, or immediately after a race, the remainder are killed because of injuries received in training, or after being assessed by their owners as no-hopers.
The image of the race horse that the industry wishes to promote is of a cherished and cosseted animal. What is concealed from the public - whether they be armchair television viewers or champagne-sipping habitués of the growing number of on-course hospitality tents - is that the life of a Thoroughbred racer is a series of unremitting challenges.
It starts in the sale ring; followed by the demands of a strict training regime; the race course debut; the requirement to perform for years at a consistent level; the uncertainty of retirement; and, eventually, a date with the knackerman or slaughterer - that is if the horse has not already met a premature end somewhere along the line. Animals selected for breeding face another daunting set of challenges. At the top end of the business, the reproductive potential of both males and females is ruthlessly exploited. This is done, typically, through the use of drugs, oppressive artificial daylight regimes and, for the 'high quality' males, punishing trips to the other side of the world to impregnate females who are hormonally receptive when mares in the northern hemisphere are 'idling'.
The industry has never been keen on chronicling these depredations. Since 2001, it has been even less forthcoming on the subject of horse mortality. This was the year that Animal Aid published a report called 'Running For Their Lives', which revealed that 247 horses had been raced to death during the 1999/2000 jump (National Hunt) season. Each horse victim was named and a breakdown was given as to whether he or she died on course (91 victims), or off.
Information on horse casualties is no longer available through official 'Scratchings - Dead' reports that were regularly published in the racing press. These identified animals who had died on the racecourse. They also included animals who died or were destroyed off course due to a persisting race injury, a training accident, or because they were no longer viable racing machines.
One of the few remaining sources of information about racecourse deaths is the The Official Form Book (incorporating the Racing Post Form Book). This annual volume, however, is primarily produced as a betting tool for horse racing punters. The structure and layout are designed to identify future prospective winners. It is written by a dozen race readers, each with his or her own perspective on the merits of individual horses, and it is for them to decide whether or not the fate of an injured or fallen horse is reported. While their reports are accurate assessments on the running of the races, the writers are not charged with investigating and recounting the fate of every horse. That responsibility must lie with the racecourses, the vets and the stewards of the Jockey Club, and with racing's promoting body, the British Horseracing Board (BHB).
Weatherbys is the industry body that supplies bloodstock information to breeders, through its publication, The General Stud Book. It also keeps information on dead horses under a contract with the BHB. It is understood that these records are comprehensive - covering both on and off course deaths of all horses 'in training'. Animal Aid has made repeated requests for this information from Weatherbys but, promises of assistance notwithstanding, no data had been provided at the time of writing.
What becomes clear from Animal Aid's comprehensive analysis of racing is that it is today thoroughly 'breeder driven'. A hunger for profits has resulted in a mass output of foals that, in Britain and Ireland alone, totals some 16,000 animals annually. Of these, somewhere between one third and one half may ultimately make a racecourse debut. The remainder are essentially a waste by-product. They are killed for pet food, fed to hunting hounds, used for other equestrian events, or sold from owner to owner in a downward spiral of neglect.
On the back of the breeding industry ride a number of financially powerful, multi-national companies. In Britain, the 'big three' bookmakers - Ladbrokes, Coral and William Hill - control the punters' money. However, the new kid on the block, Betting Exchanges, now terrifies the big three, not least because it has torn up the rulebook by taking bets on horses to lose races. Press and television companies also often have a major financial stake in racing, with the line between editorial and advertising frequently difficult to detect, especially in relation to the promotion of the major events.
Most racecourses themselves are today owned by a small number of big businesses. The exceptions are the smaller courses - particularly National Hunt (jump) tracks in the far-flung corners of Britain. These are maintained on a shoestring and offer basic facilities for both horse and human.
At the centre of the whole edifice is the 250-year-old ruling body, The Jockey Club, whose stated function is to oversee key aspects of the business and deal with problems such as race-fixing and the use of performance-enhancing drugs and horse welfare. Such is its inability to maintain control of a fast-evolving industry that - sometime in 2005 - its official functions will be given over to a new body called the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA). However, the HRA will employ many of the same Jockey Club staff in similar positions. Little looks set to change in regard to horse welfare.
Click here for part 2 of This Unsporting Life, in which we look at the position of the Jockey Club and the structure and objectives of the racing calendar.