Racing: Safety the concern as strike action threatened

The inherent dangers of riding, working with and being around horses are apparent. One jockey, Tom Halliday, lost his life in a fall last month. Another, Mick Fitzgerald, is in a neck brace for two months with a broken cervical vertebra. Flat rider Dominic Fox shattered a shin in four places last week when a horse slipped over on concrete. An assistant trainer, Chris Kinane, suffered horrific head injuries after being kicked.

The focus is currently down at the start, where two separate disputes are loaded and ready to run. Both are about safety, of man and beast. Both could result in boycotts and strike action and have prompted strong words from some of the country's most experienced horsemen.

Of prime concern to the professionals are the stalls themselves. Last year a new design was given outings on sand and turf, at Wolverhampton and Newmarket, and early this year the Australian-made units, with the brand-name Steriline, were formally adopted as the starting gate of choice for British racing.

Unfortunately, they have proved less than perfect. Horses in them have panicked and suffered injury and now trainers and jockeys are at odds with the authorities over their use. In an unprecedented step, 16 heavyweight trainers - among them John Gosden, Mick Channon, Sir Michael Stoute, Michael Jarvis, Luca Cumani and Mark Johnston - and six top jockeys, including Frankie Dettori, Richard Hughes and Kevin Darley, put their names to a critical letter to the industry trade paper expressing their outrage.

"We remain firm in our knowledge that these stalls are made of cheap, sub-standard and tinny material," stated the 22. "Our concern is for the horses, the jockeys and the handlers. We find it totally unacceptable that the number of injuries sustained by horses and the continued risks taken by handlers and jockeys can be viewed as acceptable."

This week, a summit meeting in London led to some agreement over modifications to the stalls units, in operation on 17 of the country's 35 Flat tracks and due to be phased in at all before the end of the year. They will replace the old stalls which, though inconvenient and expensive as they had to be towed round the country, are regarded by many as safer.

Running alongside the disquiet over the equipment is a related row. The company that runs five of Britain's Flat tracks, Arena Leisure, is poised to replace the handlers employed by long-established stalls service firm Racetech with its own teams of handlers.

This is seen as a cost-cutting exercise, but the commercial morality aside, is another cause for real concern within the industry. And Arena Leisure, which currently has Steriline stalls at its three all-weather venues, Wolverhampton, Southwell and Lingfield, has now been given until Monday week to convince the Jockey Club that its stalls team, due to start work a week later, are wholly competent. John Blake, the spokesman for the jockeys' trade body, said: "To switch to less experienced staff when we are already concerned about the stalls themselves could be a lethal cocktail."

At the root of the tensions is the nature of the beast. Racegoers are generally distant from activity at the stalls, which is arguably the least natural and most intimidating of any of the procedures we ask of the thoroughbred athlete.

Horses are by nature flight animals, alert to and ready to run from danger. They are also roamers, happiest when unconfined. Pavlovian experience teaches them that being near the starting gate means an imminent adrenaline rush, that of galloping in the race itself, so it is a situation when nerves can be on edge.

One of the beauties of the equine species is its programmability, and the majority of them learn that starting stalls are just another, harmless, part of man's eccentricity to horse, and get on with it.

But when things go wrong, they go very wrong. Horses, even equable ones, panic easily and, at times, inexplicably. The things that frighten them are inevitably things they associate, in their primeval subconscious, with predation: sudden noise, sudden movement, an unfamiliar, sudden touch, pain or discomfort. The rattle of a tinny starting-stall superstructure, a movement behind them, the feel of something against their legs or flanks, something flapping in the wind, a too-tight girth.

All can trigger the flight response. And a confined, panicking horse, half a ton of muscular brute strength directed by an unfocussed instinct, is a terrifying prospect.

The modifications to be made to the stalls include sound-deadening, but the jury is still out. John Gosden spoke for many when he said: "Health and safety and animal welfare are issues we need to take seriously, rather than playing Russian roulette at the beginning of every race."

l Paul Hanagan broke a collar-bone in a fall at Pontefract yesterday. Hanagan was brought down on Choreographic and the stewards found that Royal Master had interfered with Choreographic. They found apprentice rider Andrew Elliott guilty of careless riding. He will serve a four-day suspension on top of a two-day ban for the same offence at Catterick on Tuesday.

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