Cheltenham Festival 2014: 'At the end of the day it is your pet dying. It ain't your son, daughter, brother, sister,' says Ruby Walsh of horse fatalities
Jockey's forthright distinction between animal and jockey after the loss of Our Conor in Tuesday's feature race drew widespread criticism from anti-racing lobby
Another day more fatalities. The divisive issue of horse deaths made a swift return to Cheltenham with the loss in the penultimate race of Akdam to a broken leg two hurdles from home. The horse that provoked the melee, Clarcam, survived but his jockey Bryan Cooper, flicked about like a football beneath flying hooves, sustained a suspected fracture to his leg. Cooper will heal. For Akdam there was simply no hope.
The death count grew still further when Stack The Deck, which pulled up lame in the final race, was later put down after being assessed at the course stables.
Today marks the first anniversary of the fall at this festival that left amateur jockey John Thomas McNamara paralysed, injecting heat into an already emotional debate provoked by Ruby Walsh on the opening day. Walsh's forthright distinction between animal and jockey after the loss of Our Conor in Tuesday's feature race drew widespread criticism from an anti-racing lobby despairing at what they saw as the callous dismissal of animal welfare.
"Our Conor has no family, he's a horse. It's sad, but it has to be kept a little bit, in my eyes, in reality. Horses are horses. You can replace a horse. It's sad, but horses are animals, outside your back door. Humans are humans. They are inside your back door. You can replace a horse. You can't replace a human being. That's my feeling on it," Walsh had said.
He was not to know that the dangers inherent in the sport would be rammed home so graphically in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap, which also saw Tony McCoy and Wayne Hutchinson unseated on the first circuit. McCoy lay inert on the deck for long enough to prompt the erection of screens. He eventually resumed his feet, to the delight of the crowd, but not before more grim scenarios had been floated.
Walsh was back in the saddle in the first race of the day and, by definition almost, in the winner's enclosure. Faugheen had just given him his 41st Festival triumph, extending an already towering record. Walsh was allowed an answer or two to questions about his stellar mount and his performance in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and then it was back to the value placed on a horse's life.
"We live in a liberal, democratic world," he said. "I'm as entitled to my opinion as anyone else. If someone doesn't agree with it they're entitled to theirs. We look after horses like they're pets. There's a huge difference between your pet and your family. That's the point I was making.
"There's a big difference between you going home tonight and something's happened to your dog, and you go home tonight and something's happened to one of your kids. We look after horses like they are pets, and that's the feeling you get when something goes wrong.
"At the end of the day, it's still your pet. It ain't your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister. I love horses like the next man. There is no one more sympathetic to horses than me. Trust me on that."
The lot of McNamara, presently struggling to establish a tolerable future at a rehab clinic, is today's searing example that makes Walsh's point. Eleven years ago it was Kieran Kelly and Sean Cleary, close friends of Walsh, both of whom failed to recover from injuries sustained in falls and died within three months of each other. The spectre of their deaths is never far from the surface, and explains the hierarchy of emotions that register when a fatality strikes.
On a happier note Walsh was followed home in the Neptune by a horse that carried with it sharply contrasting emotions. Cheltenham is not all about the winners, not all about the wealthy owners, the big stables, the superstar jockeys. To get a horse to the starting line at this Festival is victory enough for the more modest connections, persuaded by love or madness or both into ownership of a horse or, more likely, a part of it.
John and Trish Westwood are luckier than most. They were made a Christmas present of Ballyalton by their son Lee, who, being the record money winner on golf's European Tour – £20 million-plus and counting – was well able to meet the £33,000 asking price 15 months ago at Brightwell's December sale.
Lee Westwood bought Ballyalton for his dad John (right) and mum Trish as a present (Getty)
Ballyalton came home behind Faugheen, gaining for his owners entry into the winner's enclosure, which was repayment in full no matter what happens next. Their son, an owner himself, was unable to make the annual pilgrimage from Florida, electing instead to attend a school production of Harry Potter starring his son, Sam.
Young Sam must have sent a spell across the Atlantic. There was magic in the faces of his grandparents as they shared personal space with winning owner Rich Ricci and Irish racing royalty, trainer Willie Mullins and Walsh.
"It was a really lovely Christmas present," Trish said. "We know he is going to be good. He's just learning. We spoke to Lee before the race and he was really excited. The phone will be ringing again soon."
You sensed that only watching his son lift the Claret Jug or slip a green jacket over his shoulders at the Masters next month could top a day like this. "It's the Holy Grail, isn't it?" John said. "We are thrilled to bits. That's some horse that Faugheen. To come home second to him is no disgrace at all."
* Jason Maguire has been brought out of an induced coma after he had part of his liver removed following a nasty fall at Stratford on Monday.
The Grand National-winning jockey's wife, Lauren, was at his bedside when his other visitors included his agent Chris Broad, who had reported that the surgeon had been happy with how the operation went.
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