In life, War Beat was a moderate animal, doubtless loved by the people closest to him, but of little importance in the greater scheme of things. In death, he was the catalyst for change. He was the 13th horse to die this year in a relatively new branch of the Sport of Kings: hurdle racing on artificial tracks. For the Turf, read the Sand.
Racing's authorities meant well when competition on all- weather sand-based surfaces was introduced five years ago, first at Lingfield in Surrey, then at Southwell in Nottingham. The idea was that horses could carry on running when frost and snow prevented racing on grass. On the Flat, the artificial circuit has been a success, providing employment for horses, jockeys and trainers, enjoyment for owners, and business for bookies. Over obstacles, however, it was a different matter. Conventional hurdles proved unsuitable for use on sand; they were knocked over too easily, and horses learned to kick them out of the way with contempt. So a year ago new type of jump was introduced. The idea was that that horses would respect these new hurdles - which looked a bit like mini-steeplechase fences - and jump over, rather than through them.
In fact, the main effect of the new jumps was an alarming rise in the 'failure' rate at all-weather tracks. Before the new hurdles were introduced, the percentage of horses who fell, unseated their riders, were brought down or were pulled up at Lingfield and Southwell was half that at grass courses; afterwards, the failure rate at the all-weather tracks doubled - and the fatalities increased even faster.
Those at the sharp end of the business do not wholly blame the hurdles, for several interlinked reasons. The artificial surfaces, particularly the sand-mixed-with-fibres at Southwell, tend to be less forgiving than grass: stamina- sapping to run on and unyielding to fall on. Races at the two all-weather tracks tend to be run at a fast early pace, compounding the problem of tiredness. And the standard of competition is low: the butt-end of the industry. Many of the horses are good for nothing else, and would have been sold out of racing but for the all-weather opportunity. Many of the jockeys and trainers involved have limited experience.
All racing puts tremendous stress on horses, and those at the bottom of the pile will feel it first. If they are placed in a situation which is simply too much for their ability or level of preparation, it is a recipe for disaster. Death is part of a risk- sport like racing, but unnecessary death should not be.
Ironically, War Beat's fall had nothing to do with the hurdle. The six-year-old gelding was already mortally injured as he galloped towards the jump. His pelvis had broken as he ran - as sometimes happens in all forms of racing - and severed an artery, and he was bleeding to death. Instinct and training meant that he gallantly tried to rise at the obstacle, but he could only crash through it, launching his young apprentice jockey, Pat McLoughlin, through the air.
War Beat could have died anywhere, but the British Horseracing Board decided that 13 was an unlucky one too many, and, for the sake of the horses - and of the image of the sport - the all-weather hurdle experiment was over.-
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