A day at the races ended in horror yesterday as two horses were electrocuted and died just feet from a packed crowd in one of the most grimly bizarre incidents ever witnessed at a racecourse. At Newbury, Berkshire, the hurdlers Fenix Two and Marching Song were being led unmounted round the parade ring before the first race when, without warning, they staggered and began to prance grotesquely, before collapsing within yards of each other on the grass infield of the paddock.
Both were dead within minutes. An investigation into the deaths is under way, but cables run under the area where the accident took place and it seems likely that it was caused by a freak electric shock to which horses, with their metal shoes, would be particularly susceptible.
The racecourse's managing director Stephen Higgins said: "It seems to be possible that the two horses that unfortunately died had steel shoes on, and the two that were okay had aluminium plates on, so there's a distinct possibility that the conductivity of the electricity has affected the horses but not the humans working with them."
Another horse, Kid Cassidy, showed the same symptoms to a lesser degree as those killed but recovered his composure when he was led off the grass on to a rubberised walkway.
None of the handlers involved was hurt, though several reported feeling mild electrical charges as they removed bridles from the stricken animals. Other horses were said to have suffered minor burns next to the metal bits in their mouths. Racing was abandoned on safety grounds after the first race was run.
Mr Higgins added: "We've looked at drawings that are 40 years old, and we've established that before the 1992 grandstand was constructed there was a cable potentially in that location. We've done some routine maintenance earlier in the week which we do before every race meeting... Whether or not that's disturbed something in the ground we're not sure yet, and it would be speculation to guess, but that looks like a distinct possibility."
The British Horseracing Authority is to carry out an investigation, including post-mortem examinations on the two dead animals. Investigators from Southern Electric were last night carrying out tests in the Newbury parade ring.
Kid Cassidy, ridden by Tony McCoy, was withdrawn from the race.Trainer, Nicky Henderson said: "Although his heartbeat was checked and was normal, there was no way I was going to run him." A fourth horse which was affected, The Merry Giant, took part in the race, finished last, and was later reported to be "badly traumatised".
Like Kid Cassidy, Fenix Two carried the Grand National-winning colours of the millionaire Irish businessman J P McManus.