It's unthinkable that a number of runners in the London Marathon would be expected to break their legs and necks and that some would die. How then, in 2014, is anyone still watching - much less betting on - the hapless individuals who will crash face first into the ground, break their necks and legs and die on the track in the Grand National?
Some years ago, I tried to place a bet on how many horses would be killed in the Grand National. William Hill denied the bet, calling it "tasteless". Of course it was tasteless, but my point was that it's far more tasteless to bet on the first finishers and maintain a carefree façade, pretending that broken-down horses aren't hauled off the track and put out of their 100% preventable misery. Surely our ethical standards are high enough to recognise that horses - beautiful, sensitive, intelligent animals - shouldn't have to suffer and die so that people can win a few pounds.
The Grand National is - by design, no less - an accident waiting to happen. Forty horses compete for space on the 4.5mile course fraught with obstacles, jumps and dangerous terrain. Last year, only 17 horses - fewer than half - managed to reach the finishing post. And while the race organisers were quick to highlight an unusual absence of fatalities, they failed to mention that two horses were killed in the run-up to the event earlier that week. More than three dozen horses who might otherwise have been grazing and running in the fields have been killed at Aintree in the last 50 years. How many have been put down afterwards because of injuries, including cumulative ones, by their owners or trainers only Heaven knows.
The modern racehorse is irresponsibly bred for speed at the expense of bone strength and general health, with profits in mind. Thoroughbreds forced to take part in races are pushed at top speed, literally to the breaking point: their legs are too long and fragile for the jumps.
PETA US' recent undercover investigation into the chronic misuse of drugs (which are still legal there) in leading American horse trainer Steve Asmussen's stables is currently sending shockwaves through the US racing industry. The situation is reminiscent of last year's doping scandal involving the use of anabolic steroids by trainer Mahmood al-Zarooni of the Godolphin Stables. In both cases, the horse owners expressed surprise. But everyone on the inside knows that it's common for drugs - both legal and illegal - to be used to enhance horses' performance and to mask the injuries that they incur while running.
Irish jockey Ruby Walsh's telling remark that horses are "replaceable" at last month's Cheltenham Festival reflects the view of the whole industry - that horses are mere commodities to be raced to their deaths or discarded like used betting slips. It's no surprise that four horses died at Cheltenham this year.
This attitude on the part of those who use horses for sport is truly disgusting. Princess Anne, no less, suggested again this week that people should be more open to the idea of eating horse meat! Given the regular exposés revealing the inhumane treatment of pigs and chickens for the table, to suggest that horses would receive better care if there were a market for their meat defies common sense. And with all that we know about the drugs that are quietly pumped into horses, her proposal would also likely put consumers at risk.
But what is the industry to do with all the horses it breeds who don't make the winning grade? There are few peaceful retirement paddocks for horses who don't win money for their owners or who sustain career-ending injuries. Even champions have been found stuffed in a corner, including 1984 Grand National winner Hallo Dandy, who was discovered without proper food or shelter and covered with sores from rain scald, a fungal infection. Owners are not required to provide horses with a comfortable retirement, and most aren't willing to spend money caring for horses for the rest of their lives, so thousands are shipped to slaughter with little more thought or regret than goes into scrapping an old car.
Forget the finish line - horse racing is all about the bottom line. Until the racing industry cleans up its act, something that's far from a safe bet, those who care about horses need to keep their money in their pockets come race day.