Dr's death calls racing's ethics into question

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The Independent Online

There was real tragedy in Cheltenham over the weekend, in the offices of the town's Liberal Democrat MP, but racing did not get off lightly either.

There was real tragedy in Cheltenham over the weekend, in the offices of the town's Liberal Democrat MP, but racing did not get off lightly either.

Dr Leunt ran his 36th and last jumps race at Prestbury Park on Saturday. As his connections waited in the winners' enclosure he died out there in the wind after the Pillar Property Chase. He had run his heart out.

Dr Leunt will now become another statistic of jumps racing, an expired chestnut gelding, but to his owners, of course, he will always be more than that. "He was a friend and part of the family and was the most marvellous racehorse anyone could have owned," Peter Emery said yesterday. "There is a great sense of loss and it will take some getting over.

"We have had the most fantastic season with eight winners but now the book is well and truly balanced. You could have given us all the winners in the world and we wouldn't have swapped them for Dr Leunt. There will only ever be one Dr Leunt.

"But we're racing people and we understand that things like this happen. They pay a price, in a sense, for us. Some of these horses die for us."

On television, a sonorous Derek Thompson told Channel 4 viewers that Dr Leunt had passed away (when you call yourself Tommo you shouldn't really attempt gravitas). Anyway, Dr Leunt did not pass away. That is what happens to old people under tartan blankets in retirement homes. Dr Leunt died taking part in an extremely hazardous sport.

Much of the attraction and drama of National Hunt racing is in its inherent danger. The cowardly and the timid have no chance whatsoever. It feeds a very basic instinct for those who participate and for those who watch. That is why the public prefer and identify more greatly with the winner of the Grand National than the Derby. One of them proves he is sleek and classy and an athlete, the other comes back from the trenches with snow on his boots.

Jumps racing is not designed specifically to kill its participants, but that is what necessarily happens now and again. In this, the sport is no different from boxing. Those against winter racing altogether swiftly point out that while jockeys and pugilists understand the jeopardy they are putting themselves in (and derive a great kick from it) the horses do not.

These abolitionists were given an unlikely figurehead last week when David Elsworth announced he would no longer train jumpers, largely because he was no longer able to justify to himself sending out horses to a perilous uncertainty. It was unfortunate that Philip Hobbs, Dr Leunt's trainer, used one of racing's crassest phrases on Saturday when he said "it only happens to the good ones". That does not bear comment. Indeed, it is a very moderate one that has always stuck in Elsworth's mind.

I am not the only person to have been driven up to the Whitsbury gallops and told the story of Fionans Flutter, an ordinary horse who perished in an ordinary race at Lingfield one anonymous January day in 1997. Elsworth saw Fionans Flutter struggling to keep up that day and then he saw him fall at the fourth fence. Most of all though, he still sees the look in the horse's eye when he got there, a look of pain and a look of fear. He chokes at the memory.

And when David Elsworth starts saying the casualties are not worth the glory then it is time to start listening, as he has had just about as much glory as anyone around.

The Jockey Club's response last week was that there was no evidence of an increase in fatality or injury to horses. They seemed happy to accept the status quo, to accept that a certain number of horses die each year. The reaction is a little more enlightened when death comes to boxing or motor racing. Things get done.

Peter Webbon, the Club's chief veterinary officer, said: "We are always examining ways of improving the ground and the obstacles and lessen the risks." But then he had already told us that these improvements had either not been implemented or were not working.

Proof that racing truly cared about its horses would come in a decrease in these figures. They can moan about bleeding hearts, they can moan about do-gooders, but now they have also to moan about David Elsworth. He had a protracted wrestle with his conscience and, in the end, conscience had its hand raised. It is a bout that most others care not to enter for fear of its consequences.