Racing: Reducing risks still the aim of jumping game

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EVEN ALLOWING for the emotion of the moment, Phillipa Cooper's opinion of horse racing, delivered through tears at Sandown on Saturday, was too direct to ignore. Cooper's chaser, Eulogy, the winner of the Whitbread Gold Cup last April, had just been put down after breaking a leg at the first of the railway fences. "It's a very, very cruel sport," she said, "there's no point glossing over it. Our fingerprints are in his blood."

Cooper clearly felt personally responsible for Eulogy's death, but those guilty fingerprints could just as easily be traced back to anyone who has ever visited a racecourse or placed a bet on a race. That horses will die racing, particularly over jumps, is inevitable, and the only difference between Eulogy's death and that of a selling plater at Newton Abbot is that he had achieved enough in his racing career for people to notice.

So too had French Holly, killed in a schooling accident just a day earlier, while the loss of One Man at the Grand National meeting of 1998 is a fresh and painful memory even at 18 months' distance. And this weekend the sport moves to Cheltenham, where the racing always has an added edge, walking hand-in-hand with extra risks. Everyone wants their horses back healthy and sound, but the betting is that some owners will be disappointed.

It would be wrong, though, to think that racing's administrators simply shrug their shoulders at the inevitability of it all. Preventing unnecessary injuries is an ongoing process, which receives upwards of pounds 1 million from the Levy Board for research grants every year. The aim is to make racing as fair, and safe, as is humanly possible.

Tony Goodhew, the Jockey Club's director of racecourse services, is the man responsible for doing so, and it can be a far more technical business than some might imagine. It is straightforward enough, for instance, to record the number of fallers at every fence in the country, and look for patterns which seem to indicate a rogue obstacle which claims more than its fair share. But in recent years the department has also commissioned research into the effects of soil compaction, and of different varieties of grass, on the horses that must race on it.

"We keep the statistics on obstacles under review all the time, and look at injury and fatality rates," Mayhew says. "In the past, we've found that slightly moving a chase fence can make all the difference in the world.

"There was one at Market Rasen that always caused a lot of problems, coming into the home straight. We tried a number of positions, and finally got it to one where there are nothing like the problems that there used to be."

Some racegoers might argue that difficult fences are all part of the challenge, and that the achievement of winning is diminished by too much tinkering. Goodhew, though, insists that all he is trying to do is ensure a fair test, and recalls a series of falls at what was then the Mackeson meeting, back in the early 1990s, to prove his point.

"What we're trying to avoid is trapping a horse," he says. "A classic case was the 13th fence at Cheltenham, the downhill fence, which was causing a tremendous amount of fallers because horses were caught out by the fact that the ground dropped away at a time when they were really racing. By levelling-off the landing, the faller rate has been radically reduced without reducing the quality of the racing."

The veterinary aspects of racing, of how horses react to the strains of racing, are also the subject of continuous research. Sometimes, the results fly in the face of received wisdom, such as the belief that horses raced as two-year-olds are more susceptible to injury later in their careers. In fact, according to Peter Webbon, the Jockey Club's chief veterinary advisor, research at the Animal Health Trust has shown that horses which make their debut as a four-year-old are three times more likely to suffer a life-threatening injury later in their career than those which made their debut at two.

"People think that when you race horses at two, you store up problems for later in life," Webbon says. "In fact, they seem to be more durable. There are all sorts of factors involved, of course, but it seems that if a horse is fundamentally sound, you don't prejudice that soundness by racing it."

No amount of research will ever make racing entirely safe at any level, but it is also true that much is being done to reduce the risks. Whether that is enough to wipe away the bloody fingerprints, however, is something that each of us needs to decide for ourselves.