Nothing has changed in the dangerous realm of horse racing
There will always be an inherent danger in the sport
The fact that that beauty can enthral so many means it is incumbent on those in charge of thoroughbreds to be as professional as possible when it comes to maintaining safety standards. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
It’s never good when you are asked how you sleep at night. Usually lurking somewhere in the background is a guilty conscience. So a recent exchange about my nocturnal habits produced a reflex queasiness.
I’m a stooge, a defender of the indefensible, a barbarian even. Apparently this is because I make my living from the gee-gees, which actually isn’t true. To the relief of everyone within racing, I remain outside the horsey tent. Such designation always comes down to who pays you.
It is true, however, that I make my living from covering the gee-gees and the sleep query arose from my disgraceful unwillingness to highlight and condemn the “carnage” taking place on the nation’s racecourses, racing’s “sinister secret” which is being facilitated by a complicit establishment and a craven media.
You see the recent splendid weather has been a tonic for most of us but it has produced a massive challenge for Ireland’s racecourses in producing ground that isn’t rock hard, and as a result potentially lethal on large animals designed to run very fast on very thin and very vulnerable limbs. Millions of gallons of water have been put out, and mostly to real effect. The authorities at Galway are putting out up to 100,000 gallons a day ahead of next week’s festival alone.
And yet casualties have still occurred, including a couple of fatalities at Killarney last week.
This is where the sleep query arose, in terms of a conscience that should be torn up about the toll being taken on horses for public entertainment. It’s the sort of indignation that usually crops up after the Grand National, and is often presumed to be a mostly UK phenomenon, a dangerous presumption considering the picture painted for me about what’s been supposedly happening in sub-Saharan Ireland.
The thing is, though, there hasn’t been a spike in equine fatalities in recent weeks. Neither have there been no casualties.
It has been what it always is: a dangerous game, with disaster potentially always just a step away. It wasn’t the ground that killed those two unfortunate horses in Killarney. They were injured in falls – a distinction without a difference for my critic who believes asking horses to jump on quick ground is intrinsically unfair anyway. “The horses don’t have a choice,” was a final and undeniable statement to me from someone whose indignation was in proportion to her obvious decency and sincerity.
And no, the horses don’t get a choice, a fact that usually serves as a righteously definitive full-stop to those who despair at the toll racing can take on the animals around which an entire industry revolves, and a fact that everyone who is even mildly enthusiastic about the game eventually has to acknowledge, before continuing with their enthusiasm.
Because while there are many things that come between me and sleep, the fact that where there is bloodstock, there will invariably be dead stock, isn’t one of them. That probably says plenty about a stunted empathetic quotient, but even emoting like a teary Clare Balding still doesn’t mean having to make some Faustian pact in order to enjoy watching thoroughbreds do what they are bred, reared and trained to do.
All of which doesn’t mean it can’t get ugly. The first time I saw a horse break a leg was at a point-to-point. Standing beside the fence, it was all I could do not to vomit. There was nothing remotely bucolic or nobly elemental about it. There was just sweat and muck, and an eerie silence before the merciful bang of the vet’s gun. And that was at the height of winter, as far removed from the sun-baked tracks of now as is imaginable.
It’s too easy for those resolutely burrowed inside the racing tent to dismiss those outraged by such a toll as crusty animal-rights lefties. Even the most unsentimental of racing’s hard men has to acknowledge they have a fundamental self-interest in what the world thinks of them. And only the most coldly unimaginative cannot have wondered – at least briefly– if the cost is worth it when faced with a stricken animal.
But the consolation for those of us still enthralled by the sight of one horse trying to pass a red lollipop in front of another is that there are far worse things going on in man’s uneasy relationship with the animal kingdom than a bunch of wiry little men trying to get some large quadrupeds to run fast.
The thoroughbred is a famously neurotic and fragile man-made breed, which is spectacularly ill-equipped to do much else bar race. And there is a functionality to racing that’s just as relevant as the beauty millions see when watching a racehorse gallop. The fact that that beauty can enthral so many means it is incumbent on those in charge of them to be as professional as possible when it comes to maintaining safety standards.
An investigation into a recent case at Bellewstown, where an owner was unhappy at the length of time it took for veterinary care to reach his fatally injured runner, is continuing. Any delay in preventing an animal from suffering is as unacceptable as the injury is sad.
But there will always be an inherent danger in racing. Acknowledging that isn’t the same as facing the other way. It just is. That’s enough to make anyone a little queasy sometimes. But not enough to prevent sleep.