The Last Word: Kauto was a star but humanising him masks the inhumane side of racing
Horses are animals and National Hunt, though thrilling, exploits them mercilessly. So spare us the hypocrisy – Cheltenham has dark foundations
So there we were on Friday, all misty-eyed about a horse being pulled up, showing our appreciation like we would to any departing sporting superstar. And there we had been on Tuesday, shrugging our shoulders when three horses were put down.
From hardened cynics to weeping romantics. No, it doesn't make much sense, does it?
Why don't we face the reality and admit that we regard Kauto Star as more than an animal, ascribe him human characteristics, talk and write about him as if he is one of us. But when it comes to the also-rans who perish we regard them as dumb animals, nothing more. We won't admit so, but they are expendable in the pursuit of our pleasure. Garde Champetre, Scotsirish and Educated Evans – victims of our indulgence.
But hey, we eat steaks, fry bacon, chop up pork. What's the difference? The Twitter sage who is Joey Barton was pondering this very question on Friday night. He probably still is.
But as Joey ties himself in philosophical knots there is a simple truth which cannot be denied. When it comes to racehorses we, the general public, are hypocrites. We cannot take our eyes off the champions but find it much easier to divert our attention from the screens. We take the glory without the blood and guts.
No doubt, Kauto Star gave so many fans so much pleasure. And not all of us backed him, either. There is something so noble about a brilliant racehorse, something that goes way beyond the beauty of its form, the speed of its jumping, the poetry in its action.
We endowed Kauto Star with a sporting soul. The instinct any horse might have to lead a herd or otherwise was transformed into a competitive spirit, as if Kauto was a footballer or a boxer. He was Ali with four legs, Messi with a mane. He was a hero who deserved our ovation.
Of course it was absurd. This thoroughbred knew as much about this being his last race as he would have known he'd won the King Georgefive times. Let's be honest, Kauto never did have much to do with his success. He was bred, fed and galloped. I might be wrong, but I'll bet that not once did he march up to his trainer, Paul Nicholls, and insist he put in extra training or practise his left-handed jumping.
But he was as brave as he was classy, we say. When Ruby Walsh asked for more, Kauto provided. Interesting that, seeing as Kauto was whipped. In truth it was all instinct. And no, the instinct wasn't to gain revenge on Long Run or show Denman who was boss of the yard.
We know all this. It's blindingly obvious. Yet so too is the brutality of this sport which, like any big-time sport, is a billion-pound industry. Animal Aid, the go-to pressure group for any journalist looking for a quote against racing's evils, launched a website five years ago – www.horsedeathwatch.com. It records every on-course fatality of a thoroughbred in Britain. The count at the moment is 804 in 1,832 days. Or three a week.
But that is the mere tip of the horse-burger. Animal Aid claim 420 horsesare "raced to death" every year, with 38 per cent expiring on the racecourse. The other 62 per cent can be put down because of training accidents or for commercial reasons. Yes, they do shoot horses. And cut them up. And export the meat overseas.
We should know this and deep down, we all do. But the thrill of the National Hunt is too damned enticing to resist. So we excuse our passion with lame arguments such as, "If it wasn't for racing these horses wouldn't have even been bred". Oh, that's OK then. It's fine to give an animal life with the caveat it may suffer a painful death. Is it better to have lived and suffered than never to have lived at all?
"But when they are alive they are treated like kings." Too true, but all too often they resemble those kings who had their heads cut off.
"But they want to race, you can tell in their demeanour." Well thank you, Dr Doolittle.
And all in the name of sport. It's not as wretched as hunting, because the intent is not to kill. But it does kill. Three times a week.
In racing as in life. The strong survive to munch hay in wide-open fields for the rest of their natural existences; the weak are, if they're lucky, also treated with the utmost compassion by the many, many good people in racing, a subculture which knows exactly the prices to be paid. But some horses are shot in the head while the cheers are ringing around Plumpton while the desperate are led to the back of the abattoir.
Kauto was the very fortunate one, the horse who thanks to his genes made the people bow down and worship. And in those few seconds we could disguise what racing actually is. Great fun it may well be – romanticit is not.
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