Racing Commentary: Toll rings alarm for all-weather: A spate of deaths after falls among runners on the artificial surfaces has focused concern about jumping safety

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The Independent Online
IT IS perhaps the most crass adage in racing, the one trotted out after a well-known horse is either injured or killed. 'Typical,' a connection mutters, 'it only happens to the good ones.'

Apart from being palpable rot, this saying carries with it the insinuation that poor horses are somehow more expendable than their faster stablemates.

While Cheltenham promotion swept most other matters to the sidelines this week, four of these so-called 'bad ones' slipped off the map.

While the names of Red Columbia and For Heaven's Sake, who were killed at Southwell on Wednesday, and Lusty Lad and Donosti, who also died on the all-weather, at Lingfield the following day, may not flourish for long in the minds of betting shop habitues, they may become associated with a changing face of the sport. Their deaths have focused a debate that has been bubbling for some time and, this week, several trainers, such as Roger Spicer, Ken Bridgwater and Bill Preece, announced they would never send horses to Southwell again.

The problem which racing's administrators have to address is twofold. Many trainers dislike Southwell's Fibresand surface, which is thought to be 'deader' than when first put down, while others are critics of the hurdles, which, since October 1992, have been mini fences. It is when those two factors interact that the alert starts sounding for racehorses.

'The hurdles are too stiff,' Trevor Wall, who rode For Heaven's Sake on Wednesday, said yesterday. 'One mistake over them and you're on the floor with potentially fatal consequences.

'And nine times out of 10 when you fall on turf, horses slide along the ground and get up and walk away. But there is no forgiveness on the all- weather and it's like having a head-on crash at 30mph.

'When the horse hits the floor, the floor doesn't give so the horse has to. That means a broken bone, back or neck.' Wall, coincidentally, rode his 100th winner on another of this week's victims, Red Columbia, whose 57-race career ended on a cold afternoon in Nottinghamshire. The 13-year-old chestnut had done the rounds and his final trainer was Frank Coton, an 82-year-old permit holder. He won four races and was unusually betrayed by his jumping on his final outing. Two seasons earlier he had completed the Grand National course in the John Hughes Memorial Handicap Chase.

'Red Columbia was a lovely old horse and I hate to think of old favourites like him running round Southwell and ending up dead if they make a mistake. Horses like him may not be the best class, but they're old favourites to a lot of punters,' Wall said.

'All horses fall, even the best jumpers in the world like Desert Orchid fall. They all make mistakes and horses should be able to get away with the odd mistake.'

For Heaven's Sake's was an archetypal example of the worst fall Southwell provides, when a horse runs into the 2ft 6in high solid board at the base of each hurdle and is literally overtaken by its backside. The nine-year-old died instantly of a broken neck after a grotesque back somersault.

Bill Preece, the gelding's trainer, like others in his trade, would like to see a return to the original all-weather hurdles, even though they drew criticism themselves at the time. The image remains of frontrunners kicking the gossamer obstacles out of the ground and others dodging through the gaps. 'Everyone said the old hurdles were Mickey Mouse, but at least they had some give,' said Preece, who also lost Ternimus at Southwell just over a year ago. 'And they also gave horses a chance.'

The Jockey Club response to this week's fatalities will come only after assessment of the broader scale of statistics for the whole of last season.

However, what is already known is that there are fewer fallers on the all-weather than on turf, though figures on the deaths that occur from these errors are not yet available.

Neither will Portman Square be setting up a special operations room in the light of this week's deaths. 'The all- weather has been in use now since 1989 and it was exhaustively tested and approved at the outset by the trainers,' David Pipe, the Jockey Club's spokesman, said yesterday. 'The hurdle we've got at the moment was also trialled extensively by trainers and jockeys, all of whom, without exception, gave it the thumbs up.

'We will be looking at the overall figures to see if there are any lessons to be drawn, but on this specific case we've had no representation at all suggesting that there is anything wrong with either the surface or the hurdle from either the National Trainers' Federation (NTF) or the Jockeys' Association.'

That may not be the case after the NTF holds its annual general meeting tomorrow, though the Jockey Club's attention will mainly be held by this week's all-weather jumps meetings at Southwell on Wednesday and Lingfield the following day. Only then will a clean bill of health substantiate the belief that last week was nothing more than a blip in the racing season.

(Photograph omitted)