In March of 2018, the British Horseracing Authority launched a review of safety at the Cheltenham Festival in the wake of seven horses dying during that year’s meeting. As a result of that review, several changes were made to the layout of certain races, with the fear being that not doing anything might put the future of horse racing under threat. As the dust settled on the 2022 meeting, it has been revealed that four more horses have died during Festival week, calling into question the validity of the changes that were made in 2018.
As you might imagine, the deaths of the horses, which equated to one a day, has drawn criticism from animal welfare charities. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sent a tweet out stating that it was ‘deeply saddened’ by the deaths, as well as criticism coming from the League Against Cruel Sports. One of the big questions is whether or not the number of deaths this year is an outlier, or proof that the course at Prestbury Park is still too taxing for the horses to complete all of the races in complete safety.
The Horses We Lost This Year
Ask most people about this year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and they’ll tell you about the outrageously good performance of the winning horse, Constitution Hill. Nico de Boinville rode the horse perfectly, seeing it win by 22 lengths to give Nicky Henderson the perfect opening race of the Cheltenham Festival. What they probably won’t mention is the fact that Shallwehaveonemore had to be put down after suffering a fall in the race. The Gary Moore trained runner fell at the race’s final hurdle, suffering an injury that race bosses said meant that he had to be put to sleep.
Though he was ‘immediately attended to’ by the ‘highly experienced veterinary team’ on the course, extensive treatment couldn’t save him. The RSPCA immediately released a statement via Twitter, saying,
“The death of any horse is always one too many and it’s crucial that steps are urgently taken to reduce the risk of these tragedies.”
It was a sour note on which to start the Festival this year, but worse was to follow when two horses died on the same day. Thursday saw both Mindsmadeup and Born Patriot put down after they also suffered falls in their races.
Mindsmadeup, who was an 11-year-old bay gelding, was put to death after falling at the second fence in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase. In the stands, few will have noticed. The cheers went up when Chambard was able to hold off a challenge from a horse named Mister Coffey and the 40/1 was able to hold on for the win.
Screens were put up during the race after the injury suffered by Mindsmadeup, with the ‘highly experienced veterinary team’ again attending to the horse ‘immediately’. He wasn’t the only horse to die on St. Patrick’s Day.
In the wake of the death of Mindsmadeup, Born Patriot also died after falling in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle. Initially spectators were hopeful when the horse managed to get back onto his feet, but it was soon decided that the injuries that he suffered were too severe. This was in spite of the fact that he’d been able to walk to the ambulance on his own. A spokesperson for the racecourse later confirmed that it was ‘sadly necessary to put the horse to sleep.’ That made it three horses in three days, but there was to be one more death on the final day.
Gold Cup Day should have been all about the blue riband event that was won by Rachael Blackmore, the first woman to win the Gold Cup. For many, of course, it was, but for plenty there was more sadness than joy on the final day of the Cheltenham Festival. The Gordon Elliott-trained Ginto suffered a fatal injury when running in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. The horse was pulled up during the race, with many assuming that the jockey felt as though he didn’t have the running in him. Afterwards, vets decided that he needed to be put down.
Indeed, watering has already begun at Aintree ahead of this year’s Grand National with weeks of dry weather expected in the lead up to the most challenging race in the world for horses. They do not want the ground to be too hard as this increases impact stress and injuries for horses and makes falls more dangerous. With drier winters and warmer springs expected in the future with climate change racing may have to adapt to save unnecessary deaths.
Why So Many Deaths?
The obvious question that needs to be asked in the wake of the Festival is why there were so many deaths here this time around. There was a general feeling that the changes made to the course in 2018 were working, given the fact that only one horse died during the Cheltenham Festival in 2020 and only one died in 2021. That is two deaths from a combined 864 runners, or 0.23% of horses that died across the two years. Independent research from the Centre for Equine Studies at Liverpool University shows that horses are five times more likely to die at home in the field than when racing.
This, combined with the fact that British Horseracing Authority representatives inspect the course before racing begins, suggests that conditions were fine for events to take place last week. Interestingly, though, none of the deaths came on Ladies Day. Ladies Day, you might remember, was extremely wet, with conditions meaning that the horses needed to run much slower. Not only that, but the Going was much softer than it was on other says, meaning that the landings of the horses on the ground would have been much more cushioned.
The reality is that four deaths isn’t really an outlier for the Cheltenham Festival. Though there was a feeling of satisfaction in 2020 and 2021 that only two horses had died over the two years, three had perished in 2019. Here is a look back at the number of horses that have died as a result of taking part in the Cheltenham Festival dating back to 2000:
* Racing Abandoned Due To Foot & Mouth
As you can see, the number of horses that have died each year has fluctuated, with only one horse dying on five occasions before the 2018 changes were brought in. For four horses to die is, in reality, more like the average than some sort of strange outlier.
Indeed, 73 horses dying over 22 Festivals is an average of 3.3 horses dying each year. There is not, therefore, much of a surprise that four deaths have occurred in 2022. Instead, it seems as though the precious two years are the outliers.
What Critics Have Said
Horse racing will always remain a controversial topic for some. Those that criticise the industry feel as though it is barbaric and should be stopped, with little room for nuance and compromise in their viewpoint. Unsurprisingly, these groups have not held their tongue in the wake of the deaths during this year’s Cheltenham Festival, with the League Against Cruel Sports declaring that the horses have been ‘sacrificed for entertainment’. Chris Luffingham, the Director Of External Affairs for the organisation, referred to the Festival’s ‘appalling safety record’.
“How on earth can these deaths be justified? The lives of horses are being sacrificed for ‘entertainment’ and gambling. Enough is enough. The use of the whip in the sport should be banned as it is forcing horses to go beyond what they are able to cope with and results in stress, injuries and deaths.”
He also called for a ‘new independent regulatory body with horse welfare as its only concern and the implementation of much tighter safety measures’, suggesting that both would be needed to protect horses moving forwards.
For their part, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said that it was ‘absolutely crucial that steps are taken to reduce the risk of these tragedies occurring.’ The RSPCA sent a tweet on Thursday expressing the fact that it was ‘deeply saddened and extremely concerned’ by the two deaths that occurred on St. Patrick’s Day. In a follow up tweet, the animal welfare charity said that it would ‘work alongside’ the BHA in order to find out if any of the deaths ‘could have been avoided’ and to ‘prevent further injuries and deaths’.
The British Horseracing Authority has made a constant commitment to minimising the risk to horses over the past 20 years or so, with fatal injuries suffered by horses decreasing by a third. At the time of writing, only around 0.2% of horses die on racecourses, meaning that 99.8% of competitors make it home safely when compared with 99.7% in 2006. Even so, for critics of horse racing as a sport, even one death is a death too many. Though that is a thought that would likely be shared by all concerned in the racing industry, there is always a risk that something might go wrong in racing.