Brigadier Jacques suffered the pain without the glory. When he appeared at the Ascot sales a few years ago with cracked hooves, a skin disease and barely an ounce of flesh on his bones, the racing world was shocked and astonished. He was bought out of pity by the owners of a riding centre and, with care and patience, fully rehabilitated.
Such cases, the racing authorities assure us, are the exception, not the rule, but the real problem is that when horses leave training, all too often there are no rules. Thoroughbreds are sensitive and demanding animals to keep, and of little financial value once their racing days are behind them. Some will find good homes and alternative pursuits, such as hunting, hacking or breeding. Others enter a debilitating downward spiral of sale, resale and neglect.
As a result, many people who work closely with racehorses take a hard- headed view of their future after racing. "If a horse is a nice ride you try to find a home for them," Toby Balding, a leading figure in the National Trainers' Federation, says, "and I don't like them unless they're relatively relaxed, so the majority of mine go to homes. But if they're not nice rides, one tries to send them to heaven, quite honestly. An unrideable racehorse is a very difficult animal to accommodate."
To some, Balding's attitude will seem ruthless, but opting for humane destruction rather than possible future neglect is also supported by organisations devoted to equine welfare. "We would say it's responsible," Sarah Bligh, of the International League for the Protection of Horses, says. "It's better than letting the horse get into the wrong hands and, if you saw a lot of the cases we have, you would agree with me. You have to be a little pragmatic in these situations."
The league's pragmatism includes support for the three abattoirs in Britain which are licensed to slaughter horses. "We support the abattoirs because anything's better than the horses being exported live," Bligh says. "It's very important that we don't lose Britain's abattoirs as otherwise we would have even more severe welfare cases on our hands.''
The number of thoroughbreds slaughtered in Britain is relatively small. "We get maybe one or two in an average week, sometimes four or five," Stephen Potter, of Potter's in Bristol, says. This suggests that no more than 500 end their days in abattoirs each year. Demand for horseflesh is very low in Britain, and the overwhelming majority of the carcasses will be exported to France and Belgium, where horsemeat is a traditional and popular food.
Thoroughbreds, with their lean muscle and fine bones, are a particular favourite. Ideally, however, it will be on the hoof, not "on the hook". Fresh thoroughbred meat is much more valuable than an imported frozen carcass. That difference is, in effect, a profit margin, and an open invitation to unscrupulous traders on the other side of the Channel.
The evidence that a significant number of British thoroughbreds are exported live and eventually slaughtered in Continental abattoirs is anecdotal, but persuasive. Legislation introduced after a concerted and effective campaign more than two years ago forbids the live export for slaughter of horses which have a market value of less than £715. For all horses other than thoroughbreds, the rules are extremely effective.
Racehorses, however, have passports, records of their appearance and veterinary history which allow them to travel and race overseas. For this reason, the minimum value regulations as they apply to thoroughbreds are, as Potter puts it, "a complete joke". A horse which leaves for Belgium could be going there to race, and if it has a passport, the value rules do not apply.
An experienced worker in equine welfare says: "I go to Doncaster sales quite a lot and it's the end of the line for a lot of these horses. Anything between £400 and £600 is meat money, and the gaping hole is that once a horse has got its passport it isn't checked.
``You can load up 10 horses, put them on your bill of loading, take them off the other side and drive to the Place de la Duchesse in Brussels, and the 10 horses you've got for £400 each you can sell for a grand each, no problem. You fill up with wine and you come back again and you've had a nice trip.
"It's easy. I've managed to get travel documents for horses which I know are dead. I know who these buyers are, but you can't just show motive and opportunity, you've also got to show where the crime's taking place, what the truck numbers are, which horses went on and where they were offloaded, because by the time they get to Brussels there's no names on them."
The Jockey Club is aware that former race horses could be exported for slaughter but believes that it occurs very rarely. "Theoretically it could happen, but in practice I'm reliably informed that it isn't a major concern," David Pipe, the club's director of public affairs, said yesterday. "Once a horse is outside the rules of racing we have no jurisdiction over anybody who owns that horse. Luckily we have a vigilant public, a love of animals and a number of very effective welfare organisations, and, mercifully, I don't believe that very many horses are neglected."
It is true that motive and opportunity do not prove that British thoroughbreds are suffering live export for slaughter, but the shame for racing must be that such opportunities even exist when other equine breeds are securely protected. The sport's concern for horses when their racing career ends is all but non-existent.
The concept of animal rights is foreign to many in the racing world, summoning images of grubby anarchists and trouble at the Grand National. But the belief that animals do have rights is now widely held and its growth has acquired a remorseless momentum.
Fox hunting is unlikely to survive another vote in the Commons. Even anglers are now encountering physical opposition to their pursuit. One day soon, attention will turn to racing and powerful voices will ask questions about the treatment of racehorses.Reuse content