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Cheltenham Festival: Racing to Their Deaths

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Three horses died in the opening hours of the Cheltenham Festival, and more are sure to follow. How many horses must perish before horse-racing is put out to pasture once and for all? More than 400 horses die in racing in the UK every year. Surely we have evolved enough to recognise that horses shouldn't have to suffer and pay with their lives so people can win a few quid.

Horses are raced too young, too often and on hard surfaces that practically guarantee breakdowns. Appallingly, an estimated 38% of those 400 horses die during or just after a race (the others die in the days and weeks that follow). Those who manage to survive often develop bleeding in the lungs and painful ulcers. They spend most of their time in cramped stalls, rarely knowing the pleasure of grazing in a meadow or frolicking in the sun just for the fun of it.

It is extremely common for drugs - both legal and illegal - to be used by trainers and veterinarians in response to injuries horses incur while running. Steroids are used to keep horses going. Lasix is a legal drug that stops internal bleeding in the lungs, while also masking the presence of other drugs in the horse's system. Bute is a painkiller which allows horses to run with minor injuries without taking into account that more serious injuries may result.

Jockeys vigorously opposed the few modest rules regarding whipping that have finally been put in place, yet horses can still be viciously whipped eight times during flat racing and nine times on the jumps. Even riders who exceed those abusive quotas aren't automatically held accountable. Stewards debate and decide whether or not to hold an inquiry. Fines and/or suspensions are not assured. But what is a given is that horses will still feel the sting of the whip and the throbbing welts that follow.

Nearly 20,000 horses are bred in Britain every year in the quest to produce 'winners', but not every horse will run fast enough to stay alive. Horses who do not 'make the grade' are not retired to grassy pastures. Thousands of horses - including spent thoroughbreds - are sold for slaughter every year. Some of their flesh is used in dog and cat food, while 'prime cuts' are sold for human consumption in Europe and Asia.

The Grand National would be more aptly named the Grand National Shame. Every year, horses sustain serious injuries, including fractured legs, heart failure and pulled tendons. Five horses died last year, and four others were fatally injured on the second day of the 2010 event alone.

Instead of condemning the carnage, television stations covering these races take unabashed glee in showing exhausted horses careening into each other and breaking down, over and over, often in slow-motion. But who with a shred of conscience enjoys watching the last moments of an exhausted and dying horse?

Forget the finish line - this deadly industry is all about the bottom line, and the horses are little more than disposable commodities to be dispatched behind the tarpaulin. People who want to pay tribute to all the horses who have suffered and died in racing should stay away from tracks and betting shops.

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