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The Grand National: This Year's Death Toll May Be Down But Let's Not Forget Horse Racing Is A Deadly Business

10/04/2017 17:16
Reuters Staff / Reuters

The mere fact that it's a cause for celebration because no horse died at Aintree this year says everything that anyone should need to know about the Grand National and the horse-racing industry generally.

You don't have to be an engineer to recognise that the Aintree course is an accident waiting to happen. Forty horses compete for space in a four-and-a-half mile race filled with obstacles, jumps, and dangerous terrain. The fences are larger than those found at other British racecourses, both in height and width. Many have ditches on either side deliberately designed to see just how far horses can be pushed before they either collapse or refuse to go on - even when jockeys whip them in an attempt to override their natural instinct not to go hurtling into the unknown danger ahead.

Trying to stem the growing tide of outrage over the carnage (six died last year alone), race officials added some plastic fencing and lowered a few of the obstacles slightly. But of course, it's nowhere near enough to fully protect horses who are jostling for room at breakneck speed. Nor have the organisers removed the requirement that riders carry a whip, even though the RSPCA has said that "[u]sing whips can cause pain and suffering to the horses".

As if the course weren't challenging enough, many horses entered into racing are physically ill-suited to it. Bred for speed, horses used for racing weigh at least 70 stone but have legs that are supported by ankles the size of humans'. Young animals are raced before their bones and bodies have fully matured, and the pounding and stress of the track makes them prone to injury and illness. The reckless pursuit of trophies results in back-breaking falls and sudden heart attacks during races and can cause horses to develop debilitating medical conditions, including bleeding lungs, ringbone, and gastric ulcers.

As renowned veterinarian Emma Milne put it, "The bitter paradox of racing is that the breeding of horses for speed directly undermines their ability to cope with jumps. For what a racehorse owner wants is a thin, light creature [who] can move as fast as possible - exactly the type of horse most likely to be vulnerable when forced over jumps of more than five feet high".

When these fragile animals face an obstacle such as Becher's Brook, it's a miracle any of them made it over in one piece: the landing side is 25 centimetres lower than the take-off side, and so many horses have died there that it's been called the "killer fence". At the Canal Turn, horses must make an immediate 90-degree turn after the jump, and bottlenecks routinely occur.

In 2014, only 18 horses finished the race - less than half of those who started. Less than half managed to make it across the finishing line in 2015, too. And last year, only 16 completed the race.

Of course, it's not only in the Grand National that horses suffer- casualties are commonplace in the horse-racing industry and occur on tracks throughout the UK. Who can forget the gut-wrenching photos at Doncaster of Wigmore Hall, who stood on three legs - the fourth hanging broken in the air - as a racecourse vet held a silenced pistol to his head? Tragedy also befell Many Clouds, the 2015 Grand National winner, who collapsed and died by drowning in his own blood at Cheltenham earlier this year.

What ethical blindness continues to allow otherwise decent people to attend or place a bet on this event - a stomach-churning mess of tangled limbs and fractured bones in which horses are often literally raced to their deaths? Surely, we can all agree that their lives are worth more than the chance of winning a few quid.

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