Comment: The needless toll of death

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THE British Horseracing Board is to be congratulated on its swift decision to abandon the remainder of the all-weather jump race season. The animal rights lobby could have had a field day over the question of equine deaths at Lingfield and Southwell. And they could have had a point.

The BHB action came last Friday after War Beat became the 13th casualty of the year, at Lingfield. Statistics produced earlier in the week by the Racing Post showed that over the past 12 months there has been a significant increase in grief in hurdle races on artificial surfaces compared with grass courses.

During 1992, 18.16 per cent of hurdlers running on grass fell, unseated their riders, were brought down or pulled up. The figure for non-completion on artificial tracks was 9.5 per cent. In 1993 and the start of 1994, the figure for grass was 17.23 per cent, but the all- weather figure leapt to 19.41.

The increase in casualties coincided with the introduction of a new type of hurdle at the two all-weather courses; a larger, less flimsy obstacle that has to be jumped over rather than skimmed through. While the failure rate has increased at both tracks, the proportions have remained the same: twice as many on the Fibresand surface at Southwell as on Equitrack at Lingfield.

The blame appears to lie squarely with the new-style hurdles, particularly when combined with the stamina- sapping, unforgiving going of Fibresand. But perhaps the track and hurdles are not so much culprits as catalysts which have highlighted a greater problem.

Horses that compete at all- weather tracks represent the dross of the equine population. Racing, especially jump racing, is a largely artificial sport that puts enormous stress on horses. Those at the bottom of the pile will suffer most, and more often at the hands of incompetents rather than their more talented brethren. Which is cruel: a smack too many on the backside from a man at the top of his profession, or sending to the fray a horse who cannot jump properly, is not fit enough to keep up a gallop, or is ridden by a jockey lacking experience or judgement?

Death in action is part of racing. Unnecessary death should not be. A neck broken in the heat of top-level competition at Becher's is far less distressing than the suffering of an ill-prepared, badly ridden horse who probably had no business being made into an athlete in the first place.

On all-weather tracks, Flat racing, rather than jumping, has proved successful and popular at its own level. If racing over new-style hurdles at Southwell is too much for the participants, then it is right that it should be stopped.

John Hislop, the amateur rider, journalist and owner- breeder who died last week, once summed it up perfectly. 'On the Turf there is only one rightful king - the racehorse; and if he is not served in the manner due to him, neither he nor his kingdom will prosper.'