Deaths and injuries for the horse in Steeple Chase Racing
The Grand National is billed as the “ultimate test of horse and jockey” by its organizers, as well as the world’s most famous steeplechase.
Deaths of jockeys and horses have prompted some to call for an end to the historic race, with animal rights groups saying it is cruel. So how dangerous is it?
The Grand National carries a higher risk than a lot of other horse races for several reasons. It is a steeplechase, which is more dangerous than flat and hurdle racing. On top of this, it is also longer than the average race with more fences to jump, 30 in total.
Statistics show a higher risk of horse fatalities in steeplechases. Fatalities in the Grand National are higher than the average steeplechase and the course is longer than normal and has more fences.
The risk of horse fatalities in a steeplechase is around six per 1,000 starts, says Dr Mark Kennedy, senior lecturer in animal welfare at Anglia Ruskin University. This is compared to approximately one per 1,000 horse starts for flat racing and four per 1,000 horse starts for hurdling.
“On average in the larger jump meetings, such as the three-day Grand National event, we can expect around three horse fatalities,” he says.
“My point is these are not freak accidents, they are predictable. If the risk to the car driver was the same as the Grand National – six deaths in 1,000 – then you would be lucky to still be alive after six months.
“I am not an abolitionist who thinks the race should be banned, but the risk in the Grand National is high and you will never be able to get it down to zero.”
The Grand National is longer than most other steeplechases, which are usually between 2 and 3.25 miles. It is two full circuits of the Aintree course, making it 4 miles and 880 yards (7,242m) in total, according to the racecourse.
The higher number of fences is also a factor as jumping obstacles increase risk, says the BHA. The only race believed to have more fences than the Grand National is the Velka Pardubicka in the Czech Republic, which has 31. Some of the fences in the race are also very challenging, with organisers themselves saying the riders face “the most testing fences in the world of jump racing”.
Dr Kennedy also argues pressure could be a factor. “The Grand National can be a career-changing moment if you win it, the ultimate achievement. This can put pressure on jockeys and they might be tempted to push things in a way they wouldn’t in other races.”
Each year Aintree reviews safety, working with animal welfare organisations. In 2008 consultations with the RSPCA led to the fences being trimmed in width to allow horses to go around them. This came into use for the first time, after two horses went down in the first circuit of the course. Drops on the landing side of fences have also been reduced.
“This is a well-organised and professional meeting, we do not take unnecessary risks,” says a spokeswoman for Aintree. “We plan for 12 months to make sure the race meeting goes as safely as possible. As with any sporting event, we cannot make it risk-free, but we endeavor to minimize that which we can control. We believe the Grand National is a tough but fair test for horses.” But some argue some new safety measures have actually made the race more dangerous.
“It’s the speed that does the damage, the faster they go, the heavier they fall and the more likely they are to fall,” says Ginger McCain, the four-time Grand National-winning trainer. “You don’t make things better by making it easier.”
It is difficult to know the true number of fatalities from jumps racing in South Australia, as stewards’ reports on trials are not made public. Likewise, horses that fall during a race, and may be euthanized days or weeks later as a direct result, will not be reported by the sector as a death due to injury. These horses will simply be reported as ‘retired’ or ‘deceased’, therefore the sector’s fatality figure (due to racing) will be an under-estimate.
Take these 5 points into consideration
Horses are not designed for jumping over obstacles at speed
Some people believe horses are made for jump racing. An understanding of their physiology makes it clear that they are not.
Horses have; Laterally placed eyes which restrict forward vision and their ability to judge the distance and position of an approaching obstacle at speed.
Heavy frames make it difficult to lift their own weight over obstacles.
An inflexible spine makes it physically difficult to compensate for jumping errors.
Long limbs become extended when galloping, making it difficult to adjust stride as they approach jumps at high speed.
Jumps racing pushes horses far beyond their natural limits. It exposes these animals to a much higher risk of musculoskeletal injuries, physiological stress, other injuries and death when compared to flat racing.
Horses do not “love to jump”
Some people (usually those who profit from jumps racing) would like us to believe that horses love to jump. Again, this is incorrect.
Horses only jump obstacles at full gallop because they are forced to do so.
Horses are intelligent animals with a high level of perception of their environment. If they approached an obstacle that required jumping over in the natural environment, the horse’s reaction would be to slow down, assess the obstacle and adjust their gait accordingly.
If you watch a show-jumping or eventing competition, you will see riders deliberately slow their horses as they approach an obstacle. This helps the horse to steady itself, to judge the height and to jump cleanly.
Although there are still risks involved in these equestrian sports, they are far less than those experienced by racehorse steeple chase.
Travelling at speed, these horses are not given sufficient time to assess the hurdle and can misjudge height and/or width, leading to falls. This ‘judgement’ is further compromised when many horses are jumping the same jump simultaneously.
Survival instincts mean that horses are unlikely to jump over obstacles at full speed and risk injury or death. Most horses that lose their riders during jumps races (which happens frequently) choose to run around hurdles and steeples where they can rather than continue jumping.
(Compared to flat races, jumps races have a higher rate of horses failing to finish. Nearly 20% of starters fail to cross the finish line for a variety of reasons. Horses that do finish often struggle many tens of lengths after the winner and are never in contention. Sadly, this doesn’t stop some riders from continuing to push their horses even if they know there will be no success.
Jumps races are longer than flat races and the horses are often older
The two longest horse races in Australia are jumps races. They are more than three times the length of an average flat race, which is 1500 metres.
The Grand Annual Steeple, which is the main feature race of Warrnambool’s May Racing Carnival, is officially listed as about 5500 metres because many sections of the race are run in open paddocks with few fences.
Horses competing in this race must clear 33 obstacles, more than any other steeplechase in the world. Twelve horses died in jumps races at the Warrnambool track in the eight years from 2008 to 2017 and many more have been injured.
The second longest horse race in Australia is Oakbank’s Great Eastern Steeplechase. This feature race of the Oakbank Easter Racing Carnival is 4950 metres long. Horses must clear a total of 24 obstacles.
The physical toll these races take on the horses is plain to see. Many don’t make it to the finish line. Those that do exhibit symptoms of severe physiological stress. In some cases, this stress is so severe that horses die within days of racing.
In 2011, Zendi, an 8-year-old gelding trained by Ballarat-based Damien Hunter, collapsed and died of a heart attack just a week after winning his owner’s $101,000 in the 3.2km long Galleywood Hurdle at Warrnambool.
In July 2018, About the Journey died directly after a race at Morphettville. The vet who attended him stated the probable cause of death as a ruptured aorta. This horse’s form immediately prior to this race was poor, raising the question of whether the horse should have been permitted to run at all.
Added to the excessive and cruel physical challenge of jumps racing is the fact that jumps race horses tend to be older than horses that compete in flat races. Just as with humans, the age of a horse can greatly affect its stamina.
One of the oldest horses to die, Bello Signor, trained by Victorian trainer Eric Musgrove, was 11 (roughly the equivalent of 40 in human years) when he broke a leg during a hurdle trial at Casterton and was euthanized. Up until his death, he’d earned his owners, including his trainer, nearly $600,000 in prizemoney.
Many jumps horses are horses that have failed to make the grade on the flat. They have often already suffered significant wear and tear on their bodies before they are exposed to the greater strain of jumps racing. Forcing them to race over jumps not only puts their lives at risk but also their jockeys. The difference is that the jockeys choose to be in that dangerous situation. The horses don’t.
The industry is far from transparent about horse deaths and injuries
While Thoroughbred Racing South Australia does report on horses that die during or immediately after a race, this is most certainly not the full picture.
TRSA does not release stewards’ reports of trials, nor reports on post-race day outcomes from falls and injuries sustained during racing. So the statistics don’t tell the full story.
Some deaths caused by jumps racing injuries occur well after the actual race – and well away from public view. These deaths, either by euthanasia or with the injured animal sent to slaughter, are neither reportable nor traceable – unless you look hard.
Above Average, is one such horse whose death didn’t make the jumps racing death tally for 2015, the year he ran his final race. A post-race Steward’s Report stated that a Veterinary Certificate of Fitness would be required “prior to presenting the gelding for a future trial or race”.
There was no mention in the report of the horrific incident where the horse slipped after the race finished. Despite regular checking, at least three months passed before Above Average was listed as ‘deceased’.
Likewise, any deaths that occur during trials are never publicly reported.
This means the general public never has the full picture of how many horses die or are injured as a direct result of jumps racing. The reported statistics are always under-estimate.
The ‘spectacle’ of jumps racing
There is significant hype around the spectacle of jumps racing, but the truth is a race with a handful of starters is not a spectacle and neither is watching horses and jockeys fall.
RSPCA South Australia is appalled that the sight of horses being driven at high speed over jumps, where any miscalculation can result in a potentially fatal fall, is regarded by some as an exciting spectacle.
Jumps racing is roulette for horses – horses competing in jumps races are nearly 19 times more likely to die than horses competing in flat races, according to a University of Melbourne study.
Each and every jump race is a high-risk gamble with injury and death.
It is unnecessary and indefensible in a civilised society for horses to be put at this well-proven risk of injury and death for the entertainment of a minority. The jumps racing industry may try to reduce the risks of falls, but jumps races cannot be made safe. They are inherently dangerous and inhumane.
That’s why RSPCA South Australia is opposed to jumps racing and wants to see all obstacles permanently removed from racetracks.
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