It’s almost too easy to be critical of horse racing, a sport which commands much interest throughout the country. But just ask yourself how much interest there would be if there was betting on the nags was prohibited? Very much less, for sure – unlike, say, show jumping and dressage events. I do have an objection to the use of animals in any sport, but mostly where they have no choice and are frequently subjected to cruel and unusual treatments, though the likelihood of ill-treatment is significantly ratcheted up which the prospect of greed for money is added to the equation.
Yes, I’m fully aware of the weary old chestnut that gets trotted out in these debates (no pun intended): the horses love it. So many of them might, but they are not in a position to object if they don’t want to. How does a horse tell its trainer it fancies sitting this one out?
Not only that, but without the corrupting influence of money, which horse wins and the actual racing would be of almost no interest at all. Most races are boringly processional and would be largely ignored by all but the cognoscenti were it not for the financial inducement. Let’s face facts, horse racing is otherwise pretty dull to watch, often not justifying the hysterically OTT screaming from commentators.
Regular readers will know I oppose gambling at many levels, but the history of corruption in horse racing, often related to betting syndicates of one sort of another, makes horse racing an easy target for those seeking to fix races, bribe jockeys or trainers into taking whatever actions. Yes, there are rules supposedly to prevent it, but like drug-taking in athletics and cycling, the probability is that only the tip of the iceberg is ever caught.
This is ultimately about money, not sport, but let’s start with the horses. With the Grand National alone, there have been 20 equine fatalities since the Aintree racecourse was last remodelled in 1990. This site suggests there have been 816 deaths in the past 1862 days – though this excludes the numbers of healthy animals killed at the end of their careers because they are of no further economic use and alternative homes cannot be found (said to run into thousands by some insiders.)
A Zimbabwean friend of mine suggests we should all “get real” and realise these are horses, not people. Certainly, if it were people being killed at such an alarming rate then the sport would be changed beyond all recognition. But in the words of Immanuel Kant, “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” Kindness and civility to all living creatures should be their own rewards, but conversely brutality and meanness of spirit tell their own story.
Treat an animal well and you are generally rewarded with their loyalty and service. A horse can’t tell you if they don’t feel well enough to race, or when they are in pain and need to be pulled up, yet they are coerced regardless in the name of sport and money. You may recall the controversy over jockeys making excessive use of the whip, rule changes instigated by the Jockey Club, and the gradual relaxation of the rules.
Now the language used about abuse of whip is quite strong, though at no point did I see any suggestion that instead of governing the number of times during a race a jockey may whip a horse, that whips be entirely abolished. Surely that would be the same for everybody, and would prevent the risk of cruelty? Again, I’d suggest that if care of the horse were the primary objective, whipping would have been outlawed long since.
Horses are sentient creatures who love to run, but the conditions under which they are raced are totally artificial. The fences at the Grand National are higher, wider and more vicious than almost any other course, though they are far from unique in causing fatalities – and these occur on flat courses too. No doubt the welfare of racehorses, their diets and exercise regimes, are tip top while they are deemed economically viable, but when they are killed the sorrow does not seem to extend to changing anything. Ultimately, it’s all crocodile tears about the cruel and unusual forms of suffering caused to horses; owners will claim on insurance and the business of making money out of racing goes on.
The quotes I heard from the horse racing fraternity included these: “The Grand National is never risk-free… There are risks and we all try to minimise them. No stone is left unturned.” Also: “We never set out to kill horses.” However, you do, and at a fairly alarming rate. A few jockeys get hurt, sure, but when was the last time you heard of one being killed? You suspect that the organisers would take rather swifter action and be less defensive about changing the course to improve safety if even one jockeys were killed, let alone scores.
Note I do not suggest the banning of horse racing. I think it could be conducted in more humane ways but that does not suit the industry, nor does it want the more unsavoury stories from behind the scenes leaking out either, particularly the financial ones. I’m not suggesting for a moment that the old tricks are still pulled (remember the one about sticking a piece of ginger in the horse’s anus shortly before the race started? Or the use of “dead ringers”), but probably very sophisticated high-tech systems, some involving doping to improve or detract from a horse’s performance without being noticed, and possibly many other stunts are manifest but played down in the media.
In fact, the opportunities for corruption to make money on betting are legion, and the policing so selective and under-resourced that nobody can put hand on heart and say with any degree of certainty that the result of any race is free of undue influence. When the money is so big, you can bet your bottom dollar that something fishy is going on, to coin a few phrases. So why is this betting cartel allowed to run its own show? The occasional Jockey Club and BHA crackdown do not convince me this sport is either clean or humane. It leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.