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NATIONAL DISGRACE? A culture of cruelty
Posted 1 April 2003
The following article by Sue Reid is from the Daily Mail, Saturday 5th April 2003 - the day of the Grand National. For more about horse racing, and the Grand National in particular, see our special Horse Racing Awareness Week pages.
They killed the horse called Architect in the afternoon. Just before teatime. Liverpool vet John Burgess put a .320 calibre pistol to the four-year-old hurdler's forehead and sent a bullet through his brain and spinal cord. The gun's silencer did its job. There was only a muffled bang from behind the green cotton screens put up hurriedly around the dying animal.
No sound to frighten the thousands of punters 100 yards away, quaffing champagne and already piling on bets for the next race; no glimpse of the swift execution, in case it shocked the spectators enjoying the first day of the annual Grand National meeting at Aintree. Yet the manner of Architect's demise was not unusual. The statistics of death surrounding a day at the races are chilling and remain one of the secret scandals of the multi-million pound racing industry.
A total of 27 horses have been killed during the three-day Aintree spring meeting since 1997, seven of those by hurtling over Becher's Brook and the enormous fences of the famous Grand National course. Two days ago, in the St Austell Brewery Mersey Novices' Hurdle, a six-year-old hurdler, Coolnagorna, broke his hind leg and was put down before being winched off the Aintree course just like Architect. And, if recent history is a judge, once of the 40 steeplechasers lining up to start the Grand National is likely to be dead by the end of today's race. When, at 5pm today, all the races on the Aintree card have been finished, perhaps there will be two, three or even four horses lying in the mortuary at Liverpool's animal hospital.
'Horse racing is a bloody, ruthless business,' declares Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid and a hard-line activist campaigning, without success, to get the Grand National banned. 'Hundreds of horses are raced to death and many more suffer permanent injuries. But of all the races, the Grand National is the most dangerous. There is no such thing as a harmless flutter. Every person who bets on this race is gambling with horses' lives.
'The racing industry is a powerful and lucrative business and it insists that everything is getting better for the horses. Yet, there's no proof that's true,' says Andrew. 'Back in 1984, they lowered the fences at the Grand National, but the deaths kept on happening. At more than four miles and four furlongs in length, it is a very long and deliberately punishing race. When the ground is dry - like this year, despite the course being heavily watered - more accidents tend to happen. Falling on dry ground is like landing on concrete.'
Architect, a handsome Irish-bred bay, crushed his spine by toppling at 30mph over the second-to-last hurdle of the Glenlivet Anniversary race on Thursday, April 6, 2000. His death, along with four other horses (Strong Promise, Rossell Island, Lake Kariba and Toni's Tip) in terrifying swift succession at the home of the world's most famous steeplechase, provoked a backlash against racing and its cavalier treatment of animals.
When, last year, two horses were killed in the Grand National itself - Last Fling by breaking his back at the hugely tricky Canal Turn and Manx Magic after fracturing his neck at the 20th fence - the racing world was again accused of unnecessary cruelty.
Every year, 160 horses like Architect perish while jumping over fences at British race tracks. Another 90 who start the season will also be killed because of severe injuries or because they are no longer of any commercial value. According to Animal Aid, they are the victims of a leisure industry driven by greed.
If the racecourses have become killing fields, then the horrific events in the horse trainers' yards and equine breeding establishments are equally shameful. Shrouded in secrecy is the number of horses which are born, only to be killed because they are not perfect racing material. In 1957, 7,826 racehorse mares produced 4,254 foals, a majority of which became racers. Now, 25,000 mares give birth to 14,701 colts and fillies - only a small minority are ever expected to see the starter's flag with the rest put down.
'Twenty years ago, a horse such as Shergar, the most desired stallion of his generation, would "cover" 40 mares a year,' says Alistair Down, the Channel Four racing commentator and Racing Post columnist. 'Today, the top stallions will cover 200 mares, and some of the best jumping stallions more than 300.'
Yet if the survival of the young racehorse is a cruel lottery, nothing compares to the manner in which he may end his days, once his racing career is over. The lucky ones are used for hunting and showjumping, others for breeding. But even horses which have competed in premier meetings such as the Grand National are often shot with a pistol within months of their careers ending.
There is no official control of the fate of the 5,000 horses which retire from racing every year. However, it is known that many are sent on their final journey by lorry to be slaughtered at one of Britain's three official horsemeat abattoirs. Their last resting place can be in a pet food tin or as a butchered carcass put on sale to countries such as France or Belgium where horse meat is a desirable culinary dish. Indeed, in continental Europe, dead British racehorses fetch top market price.
'Too often, the discarded racehorse faces a lengthy downward spiral from saleroom to saleroom, where they are finally bought by the meat-man,' says Carrie Humble, founder and director of the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre at Nateby, Lancashire, which is dedicated to the care of ex-racehorses and which was responsible for the rescue of the 1984 Grand National winner Hallo Dandy.
'Racehorses all over the country are just cast aside in fields and sheds. Anyone can pick them up for a few hundred guineas. One former Cheltenham winner was locked in its box for a year because the owner was so afraid of it. Another man has had 16 ex-racehorses in ten years and beat every one of them to death,' adds Carrie. 'These are lovely creatures which have given so much enjoyment. They deserve better.'
Hallo Dandy, now 29 years old and enjoying a happy retirement, was brought to Carrie after a distressed woman contacted her rehabilitation centre. She said that he had been given to a wealthy family for hunting, but his condition deteriorated. He was thin, tired and was covered with sores from the biting rain. A few more months without proper food and shelter and he would simply have died.
'It should be the responsibility of those making money out of racing to safeguard the horses once their heydays are over. These lovely creatures deserve a better end,' says Carrie.
Former top trainer Jenny Pitman has pleaded with the Jockey Club, the sport's governing body, and Aintree officials for the maximum number of Grand National runners to be reduced by ten, to a safer field of 30. 'Changes must be made so we do not hang our heads in shame,' she said after three horses were killed in 1998. Yet, despite all the criticism, there will still be 40 runners in today's Grand National.
The Jockey Club's chief vet, Peter Webbon, says: 'If we made horse races like walking races there would not be any spectators, who love the thrill and excitement of the National.'
But the jockey Richard Johnson, the on-off boyfriend of Princess Anne's daughter Zara, has said that the Aintree course on which Architect died can be lethally demanding. 'A lot of horses get injured there and I am not surprised. It's a very flat track and there is nothing to slow you down, apart from the obstacles, which are consequently approached at alarming speed. They says speed kills and it is as true on horseback as behind a wheel.'
After Architect was shot, the animal underwent a detailed post mortem conducted by Dr Derek Knottenbelt at the Philip Leverhulme Large Animal Hospital at the University of Liverpool. As head of equine studies at the hospital, he is leading research into how to reduce the risks of injury. His work recently was subject to severe criticism after it was revealed that a vet, in full view of the public, sawed off the leg of a horse that was killed in a fall at Musselburgh before sending it for research at his laboratory. And Dr Knottenbelt himself recently shot a horse with a broken leg, right in front of the stands at Chester racecourse. There was uproar.
Yesterday, Dr Knottenbelt said: 'We are working to minimise their racing injuries - that is what my research is about. But remember, the Grand National is a hard test, the ultimate challenge to a jumping horse at the pinnacle of his career. Just as a top athlete can get injured in the Olympics, a steeplechaser can get injured in the National. You have a half-ton horse powering along at 30mph and if he falls, he can get hurt. If we were to sacrifice all horse racing on the altar of animal welfare issues, we would have no horses in this country.'
The deaths of Architect and Coolnagorna are the sort of tragedies which racing chiefs must pray are not repeated today at the Grand National. Because if they are, all the world will yet again be taught the brutal truth about racing.