Campaigners have revealed that a “staggering” 1,500 horses died on racecourses across Britain in the last decade ahead of this week’s Cheltenham Festival.
Animal Aid launched Horse Death Watch in 2007 to record every on-course thoroughbred fatality in Britain, after 11 horses died during the Cheltenham Festival in 2006.
So far, there have been 1,507 deaths in 3,654 days, which activists have described as “carnage”.
Animal Aid describes the death toll as “staggering” and says horse racing is an “exploitative activity”.
But the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the governing body of the sport, says it works with the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare and is “committed to reducing the risk in racing for both horse and jockey”.
The RSPCA says it was “concerned and sad” about the seven horse deaths at the Cheltenham Festival last year.
The organisation said one of its consultants visits the Festival and other horse racing evening throughout the year “to help improve welfare wherever possible”.
The BHA adds that British racing “is among the world’s best regulated animal activities” and stresses the fatality rate has fallen by a third in 20 years.
The death toll at the Cheltenham Festival last year hit a ten-year high after seven horses died.
This year, Animal Aid campaigners have raised concerns that the “arduous” and “unforgiving” courses at the four-day event could lead to more horses being injured.
Dene Stansall, Animal Aid’s horse racing consultant, told The Huffington Post UK: “The types of races at the Cheltenham Festival tend to be faster and more competitive than races elsewhere.
“The prize money goes into the millions of pounds so there is a lot of money to be won, so jockeys, owners and trainers all want the prestige.
“The Gold Cup is the ultimate prize and if you win the Gold Cup you have the best horse in the country.”
Stansall said that even the best horses are not immune from falling foul of the course. “You get the best horses going to Cheltenham, but it still kills the best horses,” he added.
Stansall said that it is difficult to give a reason why there was a spike in the number of horse fatalities last year, but added: “It’s up to the BHA to answer questions.”
Animal Aid was damning of the races which take place at Cheltenham all year round, not just during the Festival.
“For more than ten years, we believe that Cheltenham has epitomised all that is detrimental to the welfare of race horses,” Animal Aid said in a separate written statement.
“It has the worst record of all the 60 British racecourses, with a total of 73 deaths since the start of Horse Death Watch.”
Stansall added: “The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) regularly states that horse welfare is their priority, but in our view, the reality could not be further from the truth.”
Animal Aid said the BHA should be “stripped of its role” and that horse welfare should be placed in the hands of an independent body “that would be motivated to stop what is blatant animal abuse”.
The BHA told the HuffPost UK it would “not acknowledge Animal Aid’s views and will not be getting into a dialogue with them”.
The BHA added in a statement: “The sport employs over 6,000 people to provide care and attention for the 14,000 horses in training, providing them with a level of care and a quality of life that is virtually unsurpassed by any other domesticated animal.
“British racing is committed to reducing the risk in racing for both horse and jockey.
“Despite the best efforts of all involved, as with any sport involving speed and athleticism, there remains inherent risk of injury.
“British racing is open and transparent about this risk and publishes data on our website. Within the last 20 years, the equine fatality rate in British racing has fallen by one third, from 0.3% to 0.2% of runners.”
But Animal Aid has been critical of the data published by the BHA, and instead says that information gathered by the animal rights group “goes beyond that of any racing industry information that is available to the public.”
“A decade on, the death toll of horses killed on British racecourses has reached a magnitude far beyond what we feared at the launch of Death Watch in 2007,” Animal Aid said.
“A staggering 1,500 horses have lost their lives in an exploitative activity related to gambling and the pursuit of race prize-money, and for the sake of mere entertainment. This number includes only the horses whom Animal Aid has been able to name.
“There are, however, undoubtedly hundreds more whom we have not been able to name or been able to identify the course on which they died.”
Horse Death Watch records the animal’s name, when they died, where they died, the jockey, age and cause of death.
Animal Aid said the site was launched due to “a lack of transparency” which was the “fundamental problem at the heart of the racing industry”.
A statement on its website reads: “The horse racing authorities have failed to put clear, unambiguous horse death information into the public domain, preferring to offer complex statistical data rather than specifying, as Death Watch does, the names of killed horses, where the fatality occurred, who was riding the horse and the nature of the injury.”
The BHA added: “The BHA is committed to working with racecourses to ensure that measured, evidence-based steps to further improve welfare are taken, where possible.
“The BHA also works with recognised welfare charities such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. Animal Aid oppose all use of animals for sport.
“They campaign to see horse racing banned entirely, despite the catastrophic impact this would have on the thoroughbred as a breed, and the rural economy.”
The RSPCA said in a statement: “We were extremely concerned and sad about the deaths of seven horses at last year’s event.
“Our racing consultant David Muir reviewed information about the deaths in great detail with cooperation from Cheltenham Racecourse and the British Horseracing Authority, and presented his findings and recommendations to the management. We hope to see all horses that are raced this year return safely to their stables.
“Our consultant attends the Cheltenham Festival as well as a number of other horse racing events through the year to help improve welfare wherever possible.
“Given the potential welfare risks, we believe that it is important for us to work with horseracing authorities, so we can explore any issues or measures for improvement and, if necessary, give constructive criticism.
“The RSPCA works with the British Horseracing Authority, calling for improvements to reduce the risk of injury or fatalities, and has paved the way for a number of successful improvements over the years, including a reduction in the number of horses in each race and modifications to fences.”