Cheltenham Festival to reduce field sizes in bid to improve safety

BHA review makes 17 recommendations including increase in pre-race veterinary checks

Some Plan, ridden by Noel Fehily, falls at the last during the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase  at the Cheltenham Festival. The Henry de Bromhead-trained horse was one of three to die in the race. Photograph:  Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Some Plan, ridden by Noel Fehily, falls at the last during the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. The Henry de Bromhead-trained horse was one of three to die in the race. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

 

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) published a series of recommendations on Wednesday designed to improve the safety and welfare of horses and riders in National Hunt racing as a whole and at the Cheltenham Festival in March in particular.

The proposals are the result of a review of the Festival which was launched after seven horses died as a result of injuries sustained at this year’s meeting, including three in the final race, the two-mile Grand Annual Chase.

In all, the review makes 17 recommendations, which include increased pre-race veterinary checks on runners, a reduction in the safety limit for two-mile chases from 24 to 20 and detailed analysis of faller rates for both trainers and jockeys both at Cheltenham and in all jump racing.

Trainers and jockeys with faller rates “higher than the historical average” will be required to “engage constructively” with the BHA to find ways in which their number of fallers can be reduced.

The review also calls for the launch of “a major research project” to develop “a predictive model for identifying risk factors” for all National Hunt racing, and emphasises that the rules relating to “pulling up fatigued runners must be appropriately scrutinised and enforced, to encourage positive and responsible behaviour”.

The conditions of the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle for conditional riders, which was identified as having a higher faller rate than similar races at the Festival, will also be changed to prevent riders claiming their normal allowance. The hope is that this will encourage trainers to use the jockeys with the most experience, rather than those with the biggest claim.

Launching the review on Wednesday, Nick Rust, the BHA’s chief executive, said that the number of fatal injuries at this year’s Festival was “unacceptable” and that while the overall rate of fatal injuries has declined significantly in recent years, racing still needs to do more if it is to “retain its social licence” from the British public.

“British racing has consistently and continuously improved its record on welfare outcomes over the last decade,” Rust said. “However, Parliament has recently sent a clear message to our sport that we must raise our ambitions for welfare further. At the BHA, we share this view, and I am today calling on everyone in the sport to help us achieve even higher goals for welfare.”

Brant Dunshea, the BHA’s chief regulatory officer, said that the review had found that “non-track factors are likely to be contributing to risk at Cheltenham, and the same may be true across all of jump racing. For this reason, this project has become a springboard for wider research to better identify risk factors in jump racing, above and beyond the continuous programme of innovation and improvement which has made the sport significantly safer in the last 20 years.”

However, the review found no evidence to support claims that the position of the two-mile Grand Annual as the final race of the meeting had contributed to the high fatality rate in this year’s event.

The most contentious proposal in the review is likely to be the plan to compile detailed statistics about faller rates for trainers and jockeys, since in any exercise of this kind, there will always be a bottom 10 per cent and outliers can result from nothing more than random chance.

While there is no plan to publish the statistics as yet, as happens with data on non-runners, Rust told a press conference to launch the review that the intention is to publish the figures when there is sufficient data to consider it useful.

Responding to the publication of the review, Rupert Arnold, the chief executive of the British National Trainers Federation, said that the body “welcomes the analysis and insights into the safety of the sport’s participants at Cheltenham.” Arnold added: “Along with our members, we look forward to meeting the BHA and other stakeholders to discuss the recommendations in detail and agree an appropriate basis for their implementation.”

The extension of pre-race veterinary checks to all runners at the Festival also has the potential to cause controversy, as events at this year’s Breeders’ Cup meeting in the United States showed. Track vets at Churchill Downs ordered that Polydream, the favourite, should be scratched from the Mile as they were unhappy with her movement while trotting, but Freddy Head, her trainer, insisted that the decision was “a disgrace” and that the filly simply “trots in an awkward way because of offset knees”. – Guardian

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