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Horse racing: Why this so-called Sport of Kings makes me sick to my stomach

By LIZ JONES
Last updated at 21:30pm on 12th April 2008
From the Mail on Sunday: www.mailonsunday.co.uk

I am at Aintree for my first Grand National, the spectacle millions of people around the world are watching, the ultimate showcase of British racing, and I am wading through a sea of empty plastic beer bottles.

On the approach to the course, I had already seen dozens of young men who, caught short, had been disgorged from their minibuses and were openly urinating by the side of the motorway.

Now, I am surrounded by red-faced young women, dressed to the nines, clutching plastic ice buckets containing bottles of champagne.

By the end of the day, they are being hoisted on to their boyfriends' backs, barely conscious, with vomit down their ridiculously over-tanned cleavages.

Do you agree with Liz Jones?


Calling for compassion: Liz Jones at Aintree, where she was watched carefully by security guards because, she says, she was with an Animal Aid member

Having fought my way to the Red Rum bar to buy some water, I find there is none on offer, and nothing to eat either, merely booze, booze and more booze.

Which shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose, given the Grand National's sponsorship by John Smith's beer: the more inebriated the punters, the more cash they will wager.

But what shocks me most is the disrespect given by this horrible mob to the horses in a day of sport I can liken only to bear-baiting or dog-fighting.

By close of play one horse would be dead, many more injured, and I would, literally, be made sick to my stomach at the spectacle of this so-called Sport of Kings.

I had arrived at the course with Dene Stansall of Animal Aid, a perfectly respectable registered campaigning organisation that has lobbied for many years for racing to be made more humane.

I noticed lots of security guards and policemen suddenly whispering into their radios and, before we had even gone through the turnstiles, Dene was told he would not be allowed entry.

This wasn't entirely unexpected.

At the previous day's meet when two horses - In The High Grass and Time To Sell - had been killed in a race even the BBC commentator described as "headless", meaning it was run at a reckless pace, Dene and his 14-year-old daughter, Scarlett, had their arms twisted behind their backs and were marched off the course.

Scarlett was bruised and badly shaken, and is currently instigating legal action.

I start to wonder what the racing industry is trying desperately to hide.

Because I had turned up with an animal rights activist, I am closely watched throughout the day, and at one point marched from my vigil by the Chair, the notorious 15th fence with its yawning 6ft ditch, and told to stay in the Press room.

Managing to shake off security, I later stand within view of fence number 21, just in time to see the 40 runners in the 2008 Grand National set off.

Whenever a horse falls, turning cartwheels, crashing on to its neck - and it happens often, only 15 horses will complete the course - the crowd around me cheers.

One riderless horse starts galloping the wrong way, and the crowd around me begins to jeer it.

And then the inevitable happens. Nine-year-old McKelvey, perhaps the most famous horse in the race because of a recent BBC documentary about his long, slow recovery from an injury sustained in last year's National, unseats his rider on the second circuit at the 20th fence.

He continues riderless then, terrified, he rears and falls backwards.

It is sickening to see him go down, flailing, unable to get up, eyes wild, but what is worse is that the people around me are laughing at him.

A horse ambulance is on the scene in seconds, he is diagnosed with a broken back, a screen goes up and he is destroyed on the spot.

The fatality barely warranted a mention on the Radio 4 news.

Even more shameful was the way BBC2 glossed over it. As Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, told me later: "The BBC routinely plays down the death and suffering of thoroughbreds.

"It has spent months promoting the supposedly heroic journey of McKelvey. Now he is dead - and predictably so. Let the BBC cover that, not as a tragic accident but as a cynical sacrifice with which it is complicit."

Was McKelvey's death preventable?

I tried to speak to his trainer, Peter Bowen, but he has yet to call me back.

Although in a statement, Bowen stressed the horse was "100 per cent fit", I found out that McKelvey had competed in only two hurdle races since his injury last year, in which he had shown no ability.

And since Bowen stated how "Muckers" was adored by everyone on the yard, I wonder that he was put at such risk.

This is the strange dichotomy of those who work in racing.

They claim to love their horses - so many I spoke to, including the trainers of the two horses that died last week, referred to the animals as "pets" - but still they allow them to risk breaking their necks in front of thousands of jeering drunks, and to be whipped up to 20 times in one race while clearly exhausted, all to feed the extremely lucrative racing and betting industries that put very little store in the welfare of these amazing, graceful animals.


Inevitable tragedy: McKelvey falls at the 20th and although he tries to recover, his back is broken. He was later shot

Including the fatalities last weekend, a staggering 38 horses have died at Aintree since 1997.

Since March last year, 180 horses have died on British racecourses.

One in 35 British thoroughbreds that start a season will be dead by the end of it.

The most lethal racecourse last year was Sedgefield, County Durham, where 11 horses died in 17 days of racing.

Eighty-five per cent of deaths occur on National Hunt courses, although flat-racing has its critics: as one equine physiotherapist explained: "Backing horses at the age of two is a complete and utter abomination.

"Not only are they still babies - foals are often weaned far too early - but their skeleton is immature ... which means putting a rider on their back causes pain and predisposes them to physical problems, such as arthritis, later in life."

The biggest misconception I have found among the public is that "the horses love it". That is why they continue to race, even when they have lost their jockey.

But that is patently nonsense. Horses are herd animals, and will run to keep up with the herd when frightened.

They would not naturally jump the likes of Becher's Brook: thoroughbreds are intelligent animals and do not have a death wish.

So many people in the industry told me how the horses "love to do their job".

Well, did Little Brick love his job before he was killed at the 2007 Cheltenham Festival?

He was in an overcrowded three-mile-plus race after a 490-day lay-off and had never been tested on such a difficult course.

Or how about Earl Compton, who had been raced five times in 17 days before he broke a leg at the Southwell course in Nottinghamshire?

Or Lochanee, who died at Sedgefield last November? He had struggled in six previous races and was a complete no-hoper when he had to jump 16 fences over two-and-a-half miles.

He tried really hard to keep up, then simply collapsed and died.

Another horse, 11-year-old Priests Bridge, died after being forced to race having given birth. She was so exhausted she fell and broke her neck.

Some mares are even raced while in foal.

The second big misconception is that the horses are incredibly well cared for.

I agree that, looking at the horses at Aintree, they seemed in the peak of health, immaculately groomed and polished.

But when you visit a racing yard, which can have more than 100 horses in training, you will rarely see one turned out in a field: they are far too valuable to risk getting kicked.

So each is kept in its stable for 23 hours a day, only allowed out for its allotted hour of intensive exercise.


Deadly gamble: Horses tackling the formidable Becher's Brook in this year's race

One groom told me: "There is a horse here on my yard that has been kept in his stable for eight years.

"He is never turned out because he is a stallion, which means he would fight, and because of an injury, he can't be raced.

"He is too bonkers to be rehomed, so I imagine he will soon be shot."

Simon Earle, who runs a racing yard in Wiltshire, believes there is a more natural way of training horses.

He found that 90 per cent of horses were sustaining injuries, so he set about finding out why.

"The problem is that if a horse is kept in for 23 hours a day, its circulation is bad, which promotes injury.

"Racehorses are fed high-energy food, which means not only are ulcers rife, but that when you exercise or race him his eyes will be popping out of his head, and riders will be unable to control him and will fall off.

"I turn my horses out in herds, which allows them to forage and to let off steam and play, and consequently I have only two jockeys fall off a year, in training or in competition."

Half the horses on his yard race without shoes or racing "plates", which are responsible for the majority of tendon injuries when poorly fitted.

He believes, too, there is still "massive misuse of the whip".

But the biggest tragedy of all is not the horses which die on the course, but those that leave racing, either through old age or injury: 6,000 simply disappear from the sport every year, and there is no system to keep track of them.

Weatherbys, the industry's record-keeper, issues mandatory passports for all racehorses, but this is merely to curb disease.

There are also simply too many horses. About 18,000 foals are born into the British and Irish racing industries each year, yet only around 40 per cent go on to race.

Those that do not make the grade are routinely slaughtered.

For a multi-million-pound business, there are very few safety nets in place.

There are two retraining centres, Moorcroft and Heros, and two rescue centres: the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre in Lancashire, and Greatwood in Wiltshire, which was founded by the redoubtable Helen Yeadon.

At Greatwood I was stunned to see, among the 54 immaculate rescued horses at the spotless stables, so many former stars of racing that have fallen by the wayside.

High And Mighty, a former winner at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood, was found by Helen badly emaciated and covered in rain scald.

Another horse, which had been round Cheltenham, was found in a scrap yard without a rug or even any food.

Helen told me she is now so overcrowded she can only put at-risk horses on a waiting list.

Greatwood receives a levy from every bet, and although the amount is small - of the 500,000-a-year cost of running Greatwood, just 70,000 comes from levies and donations from those in the industry - Helen is understandably reticent about criticising racing.

She would say only: "I believe most trainers and owners, most lads and lasses, love their horses, and they do try to find them a good home.

"It is more often that the person who takes them on cannot cope, so the horse enters a downward spiral."

I came across just such a horse last year. She was six years old, had an amazing flat-racing record, but something had gone wrong and she had been left in a rutted field for a year, spending the winter without any feed or even a rug.

Her hooves had split, becoming so painful and infected she could barely walk.

I took her on, bought some stables, some land and the best natural feed I could find.

And while she still has problems - she hates men, and farriers in particular - she has proved to be an intelligent, loving, gentle little horse.

But not everyone has the resources to spend on rescuing just one horse, which is why the Horserace Betting Levy Board, racing's funding body, should be forced to plough more money back into animal welfare.

At the moment it takes 10 per cent of bookmakers' gross profits to channel into the industry: scandalously, of the 90 million levy imposed in 2006/07, just 56,000 was donated to racehorse rehabilitation.

I am not calling for a ban on racing, but for the British Horseracing Authority to enforce tighter regulations to ensure horses are not being over-bred, over-raced or over-faced (of the deaths on courses in the past year, 47 horses had no qualification in the discipline in which they were racing).

Numbers in the field need to be limited: overcrowding was surely a contributing factor in the race at Aintree in which the two horses died.

A new licensing system needs to be put in place, too, to ensure that anyone who takes on a thoroughbred-has the necessary know-how, and sufficiently deep pockets.

My visit to Greatwood made me think the parade of former Grand National winners before the big race last week was a blatant propaganda exercise, especially when I learned from Helen that 1984's winner, Hallo Dandy, had been found in a field in "a dreadful state".

She agreed that racegoers often have no interest in, or compassion for, the horses.

"We often stand outside meets shaking buckets to raise money, and you would not believe the abuse we get from racegoers," she said.

"They will often say, why not put the horse in a can of dog meat when he's gone past the post? It really is disgusting."  

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