In 2013, how is anyone still watching, much less betting on, horses who crash face first into the ground, break their necks and legs and die on the Grand National track?
Surely our ethical standards can reach as high as to recognise that horses shouldn’t have to suffer and die so people can win a few quid.
The Grand National is, by design, an accident waiting to happen. Forty horses compete for space on a 4.5-mile course of obstacles, jumps and dangerous terrain. Last year, only 15 horses managed to reach the finishing post. More than three dozen horses have died in the last 50 years alone. There is little motivation for race organisers to make safety improvements since even dead horses have value.
Recent media reports have documented that the owner of a West Yorkshire slaughterhouse involved in the horsemeat scandal is the contractor who was hired by the track to remove dead horses from the Grand National. Of course, track officials are “confident as we possibly can” be that dead racers didn’t end up as “beef” lasagne. However, since the butcher is known as “The Knacker Man”, there are no grounds for reassurance. What we know for sure is that at least 1,127 horses related to the racing industry went to slaughter for human consumption last year.
An Aintree spokesperson made the track’s cynical position on dead horses clear, referring to the animals as “carcasses” and admitting that the meat is unfit for consumption since the horses “are likely to contain chemicals such as bute”.
Yet if the recent horsemeat scandal has taught us anything, it is that the monitoring and tracking of horse numbers in Britain and Ireland is so lax that tens of thousands of animals may have been exported illegally and entered the food chain.
Aintree management does little more than give lip service to stopping the carnage on the track. Race organisers tout the installation of plastic fencing as having improved safety, but horses are still whipped to their breaking point. In the past 10 years, only an average of 37 per cent of the horses have finished the race. The number of horses allowed on the course was actually increased from 29 to 40 in 2000. While a few of the obstacles have been slightly lowered, others have been raised, and more horses now fight for room to move.
The deadliest jump on the course, Bechers Brook, still forces horses to leap 4 feet, 10 inches. So many horses have died at this jump that it has been called the “world’s most dangerous jump”.
It’s not only the Grand National that sends horses to their deaths. In last month’s Cheltenham Festival, a horse died after sustaining a major spinal injury. Five horses died on that course in 2012. But since the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) refuses to publish details of casualties in the sport that it regulates, it’s up to the media and animal advocates such as Animal Aid to tally the dead.
The racing industry views horses as disposable inventory. Approximately 400 horses die on British racecourses every year. They often sustain broken legs and necks as well as severed tendons and suffer heart attacks. Others simply collapse and die. Breeders churn out horses in the hope of producing a winner, but not every horse is a fast runner. Of the 13,000 horses bred in England and Ireland every year, only about half make the cut. The other half are destined to become fillets or dog food or simply to be dumped and forgotten in a back pasture.
The racing industry is not kind to its castoffs. There are too many horses and too few retirement options. The prize money awarded to the winner of the Grand National exceeds the amount that the industry spends to help former racers. In 2012, the Horserace Betting Levy Board, racing’s principal funding body, made an estimated £71.4 million, but shockingly, it gave only £50,000 to Racehorse Rehabilitation and Retraining. While the best bet for the horses would be an end to breeding, racing and killing thoroughbreds altogether, at the very least the racing world must offer a decent retirement for the horses it no longer uses. Lineage is no protection from a grim fate. After being retired, Hallo Dandy, the 1984 Grand National winner, was later found emaciated, with his hooves cracked and overgrown and his ribs pushing out against his blistered skin, and suffering from rain scald.
Forget the finish line – this cruel industry is all about the bottom line. As long as people believe that a horse’s life is worth less than a chance at winning a few quid, horses will continue to suffer and die.