Men and women will be weeping discreetly and others will weep more openly at the plight of two larger- than-life-sized puppets enduring the hell of the first World War's western front as the National Theatre production of War Horse opens in Dublin on March 26th. Such is the emotive allure of horses: powerful yet all too vulnerable.
Therefore it is not so surprising that the comments made by leading National Hunt jockey Ruby Walsh following the death of Our Conor at Cheltenham have caused wide offence, mostly outside racing. Those in the industry accept that along with anticipation and triumphs comes grief, usually at the loss of a horse. Our Conor, at only five, had returned to Cheltenham seeking further glory. Instead he was the first of four fatalities.
Walsh, who clearly does not hate horses as has been alleged, and earns his living riding them, dredged up the boring old argument about animals versus people to make a poorly made point about perspective that became lost in the subsequent invective. His insensitivity created hysteria and a verbal brawl: the racing community versus the rest.
The latter consists of ordinary horse-owners, riders, hobby riders and many horse lovers who have never even ridden one. More importantly, racing has considerable opposition: it is associated with wealth, cynicism, ruthlessness, breeding monopolies, greed and the exploitation of vulnerable animals that give their best and often suffer fatal injuries. That may sound sentimental but it is true. National Hunt has additional dangers.
A thing of beauty
The thoroughbred racehorse is a thing of beauty honed by more than 300 years of genetic engineering. Just as the racing car has been perfected for Formula 1, racehorses have been bred to enable some humans to make money and for far more humans to just enjoy the horses. There is nothing quite like a thoroughbred horse, which explains why there is increasing support to ensure a life after racing for as many as is humanely possible.
It was disappointing that Walsh would pronounce any horse is “replaceable”, particularly when supporters of racing want the public to grasp the passion it inspires, not the ambivalence. Walsh would agree that the horses, not the jockeys, capture the public’s imagination. No horse is “replaceable”, as Walsh knows – after all, he is the man who rode Kauto Star and is sufficiently talented to have ridden so many great horses, all of which are irreplaceable.
The death threats being directed at Walsh were even more stupid than his initial comments. But then he elaborated and made it worse. What person in their right mind is going to put their cat, dog or horse before their children? Walsh’s pragmatism last week will stalk him, because people will remember the insensitivity. Unfortunately it will also backfire on horse racing, particularly Irish horse racing. Irish horses need racing as it remains their finest international stage because it has the highest profile of any equestrian sport. Ireland’s three-day event team’s magnificent fifth place in the London Olympics remains one of Irish sport’s most neglected achievements.
Jockeys get injured. Racing, particularly jump racing, is high-risk, as are many other equestrian pursuits such as three-day eventing. Similarly, schoolboy rugby players can suffer catastrophic injuries. Michael Schumacher had 306 race starts as a Formula 1 driver yet is fighting for his life following a vacation skiing mishap. Sport is like that.
Horse racing is strangely different: far more horses die than jockeys – because injured racehorses are in many cases put down. The 2012 Cheltenham gold cup winner Synchronised died a month later in the Grand National – champion jockey Tony McCoy, known for his toughness, said he would never forget Synchronised, who was clearly irreplaceable.
Horses also suffer heart attacks, as did the great Best Mate, brought back from retirement. Regardless of Walsh’s opinions, many men cried bitter tears over the death of that irreplaceable horse. Had Kauto Star died at Cheltenham in 2012 there would have been uproar. Walsh pulled him up. Why? Because Kauto Star is irreplaceable. Ireland has yet to “replace” Arkle, who reigns supreme half a century after his first Cheltenham victory.
Humans are smaller than horses and more resilient. If an ordinary person breaks a leg it is at least inconvenient. If an athlete breaks a leg it may threaten his or her career. If a horse breaks a leg it dies. If a racehorse injures a tendon the horse is usually put down, even though the injury is not life-threatening, because racehorses seem only to have careers. Packing too many competitive horses together in races invites accidents.
Horses possess a simple but profound courage. Walsh knows that and should have said it, instead of stringing together some non sequiturs that have embarrassed many Irish people and reflected poorly on Irish racing ethics. Brian O’Driscoll wept in Paris. What’s wrong with emotion? It resides at the heart of all sport, particularly horse racing. Most people know that.