Joan Smith: What kind of sport lets its finest athletes die on the track?

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The Independent Online

Imagine the outcry if six top-class athletes died in a single day. There would be an urgent inquiry and demands for officials to be sacked, possibly even the cancellation of remaining events until the cause of the fatalities had been established. MPs would be using words such as "carnage", arguing that the governing body of a sport with such a terrible safety record was clearly incapable of doing its job. When the casualties are racehorses, however, it's a different matter. This year's Cheltenham festival continued on Friday as though nothing had happened, despite the deaths of no fewer than eight animals in the first three days. By the last race, the figure was nine.

This is a shocking figure, inaccurately reported in most newspapers when they missed the death of Sh Boom who perished overnight on Thursday after falling in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Not that visitors to the website of the Jockey Club, racing's regulatory body which also owns Cheltenham, would have discovered any figure at all. Under the heading "Cheltenham fatalities", sympathy was extended to "the connections of those horses which have been fatally injured", but refrained from giving any indication of the scale of the catastrophe. It's not as if last week's deaths were a record, I suppose, as that dubious honour belongs to Chelten-ham in 1996, when 10 horses died.

The usual excuses have all been tried: horses love running and jumping; they're just doing what comes naturally; casualties on this staggering scale are unfortunate but unavoidable. Yet it's patently absurd to talk about nature in the context of an industry such as horseracing, with animals forced to perform at their outer limits on crowded tracks by jockeys with whips.

Some commentators even claim to discern a tragic beauty in the deaths of such magnificent animals, felled in their prime, which goes to show that sometimes outsiders have a better grasp of reality than the people who run a so-called sport.

Comparisons with boxing are equally spurious. For decades young working-class men, especially from ethnic minorities, have gone into the ring because it's a glamorous career and a way out of poverty; but at least they know the risks. When apologists for racing wax lyrical about the mystical union of horse and jockey, they conveniently forget that only half of the team is capable of making a choice.

Racehorses are highly bred for what is actually a hugely profitable business, with no more than half of the 16,000 foals born annually in Britain and Ireland making the grade. The rest, according to the charity Animal Aid, are sold off or killed for pet food. But the really staggering statistic - also compiled by Animal Aid - is the claim that around 375 horses entered into races die or are killed each season. Around 115 die on the course itself, during or immediately after a race, from broken backs, necks and legs or from heart attacks. The rest, according to the charity, are put down after being injured during training or being assessed as "no-hopers".

As the starters lined up for the Cheltenham Gold Cup two days ago, there must have been at least some spectators holding their breath and wondering if any more animals were going to be sacrificed to this multimillion-pound business. At the end of the day, the organisers duly admitted a ninth fatality, leaving the claim that racing is run by people who love horses in tatters. Perhaps it's time for MPs, who voted last week to ban the cruel practice of docking dogs' tails, to turn their attention to a sport that regularly leaves some of its finest specimens dead or dying on the track.