Last month I wrote a piece about the British Horseracing Authority’s suggestion that a failure to deal with the increase in the deaths of horses could lead to the industry as a whole suffering in the long-term. It came on the back of an investigation into the deaths of 7 horses during the Cheltenham Festival and led to the suggestion that British racing would need to ‘work together’ moving forward in an attempt to reduce the risks at play during the jump racing season.
The BHA declared that the deaths of 6 horses was ‘simply unacceptable’, with the 7th horse’s death coming to light later on. It’s something that has apparently struck a chord with horse owners Paul and Clare Rooney, who have informed their trainers that they do not want any of their horses to be entered into races at Cheltenham Racecourse indefinitely.
Four days after news of the findings of the British Horseracing Authority’s investigation into the deaths, the Rooney’s own horse Starchitect had to be put down after breaking a leg at Cheltenham, which might have led to their reaction.
Will This Have An Effect On Cheltenham Racing?
The Rooney’s don’t own any favourites for the races at the Cheltenham Festival, which takes place every March, but they do own a number of decent hurdlers that many will have expected to see competing at the racecourse’s showpiece event.
I’m A Game Changer and If The Cap Fits are standout examples of horses that the Rooney’s would likely have entered into races at the Festival but now won’t be doing.
Many expected horse welfare to be a talking point in 2019, especially after the BHA’s investigation, but few thought that it would be headline news quite as early in the year as this. The decision taken by the Rooney’s, a husband and wife team that own the 2017 Neptune Novices’ Hurdle winner Willoughby Court, are currently sitting second behind JP McManus in the owners championship and saw seventeen of their horses run at Prestbury Park last season, so their absence from any races held on the Gloucestershire course will be noticeable.
Leading Owners However Defend Cheltenham
If the Rooney’s had been hoping that their protest would encourage other owners to join them then they will have been disappointed by the reaction of many.
Terry Warner saw his horses win the Champion Hurdle in 2003 and the Triumph Hurdle 3 years later. He said that the Cheltenham course was ‘first class’ and that he had ‘lost horses there’ but that he has been ‘racing for 40 years’ and not had any major things to complain about.
Warner’s opinion was one shared by Andy Stewart, the owner of Big Buck’s that won the Stayers’ Hurdle 4 times in succession between 2009 and 2012. He said that he was hopeful he would have ‘many more’ winners at Cheltenham in the future and sprang to the defense of the clerk of the course Simon Claisse. He said, “I read [fellow owner] John Hales saying the Cheltenham Festival is the Olympics of National Hunt racing and I couldn’t agree more”. Stewart was also keen to point out the excellent work being done by Ian Renton, the course’s chief executive.
Decision Should Be Respected
Not all owners have criticised the Rooney’s for their decision, however.Jared Sullivan, who owns Silviniaco Conti that has won the King George VI Chase twice, believes that the Rooney’s have to be respected for their decision. He pointed out that they ‘pay the bills’ and so if they think that it’s not right for their horses to run at a course that has come under close scrutiny then the industry should ‘let them get on with it’.
Melrose Boy was the 7th horse to have been revealed to have died at Cheltenham and he was owned by the Rooney’s, as was Sandsend that broke a leg in the County Hurdle.
Sullivan described what happened to Sandsend as ‘sickening’, though he was also quick to point out that he personally had no issues about running horses at Cheltenham in spite of the deaths during the Festival. Mainly he wanted to make clear that it was the Rooney’s own choice whether or not to enter their horses at the course and that it doesn’t have ‘anything to do with anyone else’.
‘No Comment’ On Matter From Cheltenham
The clerk of Cheltenham Racecourse, Simon Claisse, refused to comment on the reports that the Rooney’s had written to their trainers and asked them not to enter their horses into races at Prestbury Park.
Speaking during the New Year’s Day meeting at the course he said, “Until we’ve had any communication with Paul and Clare we aren’t able to comment further”.
Claisse isn’t the only person remaining quiet on the matter, with the Rooney’s racing manager Jason Maguire, a former jump racing jockey himself, declining to comment.
The news came to light after the letter that they sent to their trainers was leaked to the Racing Post. Members of the racecourse hierarchy are reportedly planning to contact the Rooney’s to ask them about the issue.
Surprise Across The Industry
The Rooney’s are going to wait and see whether Cheltenham Racecourse responds to the BHA’s report with any meaningful action before deciding how to proceed, according to reports.
The British Horseracing Authority’s recommendations include alterations to the conditions of some races, extra veterinary checks and other major shakeups, intended to be for the benefit of the industry as a whole. The reaction to the news has been one of shock from most quarters, with the likes of champion trainer Paul Nicholls defending the course in the wake of the news.
Cheltenham Racecourse hasn’t always been favourable for the Rooney’s, with their horse One For Billy looking set to win his race back in October only for him to go the wrong way at the run-in, resulting in him crashing through tape instead of running straight past at one of the intersections.
Despite entering 17 horses at Cheltenham last season, just two of the Rooney’s horses took part in races at the course during the winter according to the Guardian. They have horses with trainers like Jonjo O’Neill, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Kim Bailey, who are all based in close proximity to Cheltenham Racecourse.
At present they have declined to explain their decision publicly.