Two horses died on the Friday of a meeting in November, though it was in 2 separate incidents, and then another died on the Saturday when running on the straight. Finally, London Prize suffered a fall on a downhill hurdle and had to be put down after landing on its neck.
It resulted in major criticism from top jockey Brian Hughes, who said that the Cheltenham officials should be ‘ashamed of themselves’ for watering the track as much as they did, making the ground ‘horrendous’.
Stan Sheppard joined the criticism, saying it was like running horses through ‘PVA glue’. Richard Johnson, the champion jockey, was slightly more defensive of the course, pointing out that there had been heavy rain and that it’s difficult for courses to get the ground fresh enough for graded races.
Horse Deaths Have Forced Track Changes
The Cheltenham Festival is unquestionable the biggest meeting of the season for the racecourse, but it’s consequently the one that comes under the most criticism.
According to Animal Aid, 7 horses died at the Festival in 2018, which came on the back of 4 deaths the year before and 6 in 2016. It took the total to 40 deaths at the meeting since the 2007 running and Animal Aid launched Race Horse Deathwatch as a result.
Race Horse Deathwatch even launched an analysis into the situation with a piece entitled ‘ Why more horses die at Cheltenham than at any other British Racecourse’.
The research showed that horses were 4 times more likely to die at the Gloucester course than the racecourse at Hexham, which was deemed to be similar in layout and number of races to Prestbury Park.
The research showed that factors such as whether amateurs were riding the horse, the length of the race, the number of competitors and the conditions of the course were the key difference makers, rather than the number and type of fences in each race.
Even so, a review was launched after the Cheltenham Festival in March 2018, specifically after a 7th horse named Melrose Boy was confirmed to have died later in the season.
The review made suggestions for major changes to take place, with the British Horseracing Authority saying that 6 deaths were ‘simple unacceptable before the 7th was confirmed.
Amongst the suggested changes were extra checks by vets, alterations to the conditions of certain races and a study looking at the faller rates. The BHA chief executive Nick Rust described it as a chance for the horse racing industry to avoid a ‘threat’ to the future of the sport.
What Fences Are Changing At Cheltenham Racecourse?
The second to last fence on the Old Course at Cheltenham was discovered to have the worse faller rate of any of the ones used during the Festival, so it was decided by course officials that it should be moved to offer safer passage to competitors.
Despite the major criticism levelled at the racecourse in recent times, it is only the second fence to be moved at the home of jump racing for 20 years.
Formerly based just prior to the bend, the penultimate jump often saw horses jump it well but then buckle after landing, so it was moved to the final straight back in 2010.
Despite causing what Cheltenham officials referred to as a ‘significant difference’ to faller rates, it has still been the location of a number of high-profile incidents in the years since. One of the most significant ones came last year when Ruby Walsh fell with Al Boum Photo and broke his leg as a result.
Three horses fell there during the November meeting for amateur riders, with 1 horse losing its life as a result. The decision was taken by the clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, and his team to move the fence 10 yards further up the hill and towards the finishing post, given horse longer to get into their stride after the bend to set themselves for the jump.
What It Means For The Horses
The majority of races won’t see much difference to them, in all honestly, though it will be interesting to see whether horses cope with the fact that the second to last and final jumps are closer to each other and whether they can recover in time.
The one race where it will almost certainly make a difference will be the RSA Novice Chase on account of the fact that the horses start the race between the two fences, but Claisse isn’t worried. He noted that there should still be enough time for them to get up to speed and it’s also a race that often sees a small field enter it.
Claisse believes that the racecourse has alway considered the issue of the fences and has made numerous changes to assist jockeys, including the raising of the guard rails and increasing the depth of the toe boards, as well as bringing the fences’ belies out.
Given that the course’s own figures for fatalities from April to the New Year’s Day meeting show that the rate was 0.37% compared to a national average of 0.39%, it’s unlikely that officials will feel a need to make too many changes.
Critics are quick to point out that that period of time looked at is conspicuous for the fact that it’s left out the Cheltenham Festival, but ultimately it will mean little difference to the competitors this year.