Old warriors still in danger

Ex-racehorses remain in peril despite a recent inquiry. Greg Wood reports
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The press release was the culmination of an 18-month investigation into one of the racing industry's most urgent problems but, what with Newmarket's July meeting, the King George and Glorious Goodwood, it passed almost unnoticed. Then again, perhaps that was the idea, because if the British Horseracing Board was not embarrassed about its inquiry into the welfare of ex-racehorses, it should have been.

The Board, you may recall, felt obliged to do something - or rather, to appear to be doing something - for retired thoroughbreds following the ITV documentary They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

This, as it happens, was one of the shoddiest pieces of television journalism ever produced, preferring to concentrate on cheap xenophobia - lingering close-ups of Belgians eating horsemeat - rather than the serious question of what can be done to stop former racehorses ending up as welfare cases.

None the less, it succeeded where dozens of knowledgeable individuals and organisations had failed and persuaded the BHB that frantic hand-washing was not the most mature response to the problem.

The end result, however, has left front-line campaigners teetering between frustration and rage. A monitoring system to be co-ordinated by the National Equine Welfare Council will alert the authorities to "the existence of any ill-treated horse which is suspected of being an ex-racehorse''.

A report will then be filed with the NEWC, which will in turn inform the director general of the Racehorse Owners Association and the Jockey Club's senior veterinary officer, who will "assess the horse, confirm whether it has a racing background and advise on the course of action: either rehabilitation or humane destruction''.

Of course, by the time the red tape is out of the way, the unfortunate animal in question may well have saved them the trouble and keeled over all by itself. But if the Board believed that it could now retire gracefully from the argument, it had better think again.

At least 2,000 horses leave training each year, and no-one has a clear idea of what happens to them. The BHB claims that "the vast majority are well cared for and lead productive lives". People like Carrie Humble beg to differ.

Humble, who runs the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre in Cumbria, is a passionate, determined and forthright campaigner for the welfare of ex-racehorses.

At present, she is on a three-week tour in Ireland, accompanied by Desert Orchid, to raise desperately-needed funds for her centre, which is the only registered charity in the country which looks after retired thoroughbreds, but as soon as she returns, battle will be joined.

"I was incandescent with fury when I saw the report," Humble says. "It doesn't say anything, it doesn't mean anything and it won't do anything. They say that the vast majority are well cared for, but I'm going to make them eat those words. If that were the case, I wouldn't be full up and with a waiting list, nor would every other organisation, and the markets would not be full of them."

The new procedures are, in her opinion, an expensive waste of time. "Grassroots organisations like mine are out there in the field and we know when we get to a horse whether we're going to put it down or try to give it a future. We don't need to call a colonel at the NEWC and wait for him to get in touch with a vet. It is unworkable, a Band-Aid on a boil."

No-one, least of all Humble, believes that every retiring racehorse will be found a comfortable home, and she is realistic about the alternatives. "I don't have a problem with horses going for meat," she says, "it's a question of how they get there. If you want the carcass money, put it down at home."

Instead, too many thoroughbreds end up being bought for slaughter out of sales rings, their well-being of little concern to either buyer or seller.

According to the BHB, "all reputable horse sales operate a minimum bid system to prevent horses being sold in the rings for meat. This minimum is in the region of 500 guineas."

As ignorance - deliberate or otherwise - goes, this takes some beating. As any slaughterman will tell you, 500 guineas (indeed, anything up to around 600 guineas) is very much a meat-money price, while an even more obvious question must be - what about the disreputable sales in different parts of the country?

"Just the other day, at one of these sales, a friend of mine saved a horse, a mare in foal, for 400 guineas. She was too weak to get out of her box, but she belonged to the auctioneer and he just took the auction to the box and sold her out of it. The RSPCA said it was the worst case they'd ever seen in that area," Humble says.

When people claim that racing is cruel, the BHB quite rightly points out that the average racehorse in training is one of the most pampered animals on the planet.

In the near future, however, a bright television producer will take up the issues which They Shoot Horses Don't They? managed to miss, and the Board will suddenly find itself on the defensive in a society which takes animal welfare ever more seriously. This problem is not going to go away. Neither, thankfully, is Carrie Humble.

Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre, 4 Crook Lea, Kendal, Cumbria LA9 4QW.

01539 733 566.

Registered charity: 1020048.