Racing must emphasise its dedication to welfare issues

 

Leading horse-racing commentator Simon Holt writes in the Racing Post about the dedication to welfare in the industry. 

On arrival at Kempton last Saturday morning, I was flagged down by two ladies standing just outside the racecourse gates and handed an Animal Aid leaflet bearing the claim that "every year, around 420 horses are raced to death in Britain".

Over the page, there was a further allegation that, of the 13,000 foals born annually in Britain and Ireland, only around 50 per cent are good enough to race and that "the available evidence indicates many of the failures are shot at stables or killed for meat".

And there was also condemnation of the whip and an accusation that "exhausted horses are being whipped to force them to keep running".

At the bottom of the leaflet, I was invited to help "stop animal cruelty" by sending off a donation to an address in Tonbridge, Kent.

Of course, the two ladies were doing nothing illegal by handing out their literature; they weren't on the racecourse's private property and this is a free country.

In one or two other racing destinations they might have suddenly disappeared never to be seen again.

Moreover, horses do die at the races, although it is estimated that the fatality rate has now fallen to 0.2 per cent of around 90,000 runners a year (down by a third in recent years) which amounts to only 180 deaths as opposed to the claimed 420.

Also, foal wastage and overbreeding is certainly an area of current concern (and it would be nearly impossible to track the destiny of every individual) while use of the whip remains as contentious a subject within the sport as outside.

So the claims, while expressed in an inflammatory manner, do touch on real and existing issues.

The Horse Comes First campaign was launched to emphasise how leading organisations involved in British horseracing are working together to raise awareness of high levels of equine welfare in the sport.

The campaign's website claims that "racehorses enjoy levels of care and quality of life virtually unsurpassed by any other domestic animal" and "British racing's self-imposed and enforced welfare standards far exceed animal welfare legislation".

And, lest one believes that all welfare groups like Animal Aid are wholly negative, there is a quote from Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, stating that his organisation "does not accept the claim that horses are unwilling participants in sport. The notion that sport is bad for horses needs to be challenged". 

Yes, a small percentage of horses do die unintentionally and unfortunately at the races, but while the authorities strive to reduce that number the bigger picture must also be constantly emphasised.

Three years ago the BHA commissioned Deloitte to report on the economic impact of British racing.

Among its findings were the fact that in 2013 the sport contributed £275 million in tax to the Exchequer. There were 85,000 employees in the racing, breeding and betting industries and it was then - and still is - the second mostattended sport in Britain after football.

Meetings like the Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot, the Derby and the Grand National regularly figure in the top ten most-attended sporting events of the year.

In addition, the report also pointed out that British racing has some of the best horses in the world, is admired for its standards of integrity and attracts huge foreign investment.

So, despite making points which should be understood and not disrespectfully condemned, Animal Aid's claims can be vigorously contextualised.

And, if people can hand out challenging leaflets outside the racecourse gates, then there ought to be more visible counter-arguments within. Racecourses often record their dedication to veterinary care in racecards - at Kempton there is a thoroughly explained racehorse and jockey welfare notice - but more could be done through signage and on big screens to emphasise how the industry acts with responsibility and accepts a duty of care to every horse.

Perhaps the most important counterpoint to Animal Aid's concerns is that, in the event of racing's demise, it might like to consider the fate of thousands of employees and, perhaps more importantly to them, thousands of horses who will suddenly be unable to do what they have been bought and bred to do.

Who then, do they think, will come to the aid of the animals?

Courtesy of the Racing Post - 13th January 2016