Talking Horses: BHA seeks industry help as fatality rate rises

Horse racing is wrestling with its conscience, following news that 201 racehorses died in action in Britain last year, the highest number since 2012

A report was published last month designed to improve safety in jumps racing overall and at the Cheltenham Festival, above, in particular. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Horse racing is wrestling with its conscience, following the news published on Tuesday that 202 racehorses died in action in Britain last year, the highest number since 2012. More troublingly, the fatality rate went up, from 0.18% of all runners in 2017 to 0.22% last year.

Why has this happened? The main suggestion being kicked around is that 2018 was unusually hot and dry, which would tend to produce a racing surface with less give in it and a higher risk of leg injuries. On the other hand, clerks of the course are quick to water the ground these days and very mindful of the need to do so during the summer, on grounds of safety.

Watering during the winter is a trickier proposition, of course, because if you water on Monday and it rains unexpectedly on Wednesday, you’ve got a quagmire by Thursday. As has been repeatedly noted by trainers, this jumps season has been unusually dry. On drier ground, you go faster and the ground is less yielding if you happen to fall on it at speed.

The available comfort is that the five-year average fatality rate is 0.2%, as it was last year, and it has never been lower. That is an obvious improvement on the 0.29% of 20 years ago. It is a more statistically robust figure, less vulnerable to variance, or bad luck, than the figures relating to a single year.

Racing is much more focused on safety than it was when I first started to take an interest 35 years ago. The British Horseracing Authority has a good record in this area, in my view, since it seeks out and promotes initiatives that may help, like new padded hurdles and the trials of new colours for hurdles and guard rails which may be easier for horses to see. Of course, there is always more you can do and I’m sure they will try.

I note with interest, however, this line from chief regulatory officer, Brant Dunshea: “We cannot simply regulate our way to success. We all need to work together on this issue.” He adds: “We all share a communal responsibility.”

This is basically a plea to horsemen to make a still greater effort to do what they can. But that’s a tricky message for officials to spell out in as many words and one can’t be sure what the response will be, because the BHA is not currently on excellent terms with racing professionals.

I’d go so far as to say the feeling among trainers was mutinous at Kempton on Monday as they reflected on recent BHA actions in other areas. “I don’t know what they’re smoking,” one said. “It’s all got a bit silly,” said another. I feel the BHA has work to do in reconnecting with trainers and recovering lost goodwill, and this will be necessary work if it needs the industry to respond to coded urgings like Tuesday’s.

Bristol De Mai’s Grand National target

Aintree is now on the agenda for Bristol De Mai and a plan to send him hurdling at Haydock next month has been discarded. The grey, who won the Betfair Chase for a second time this season, will now go straight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the hope is he will recover in time to take in the National three weeks later.

“We talked it over at the weekend,” said Anthony Bromley, racing manager to Bristol De Mai’s owners. “He deserves his chance in the Gold Cup again, so we’ll go there, and then it’s a question of how well he takes that. The National might come too quick but there’s a good possibility that he’ll run in it and we’d like to give him every chance, so we’re giving up our former plan of running in February.”

Bromley added that he was not especially impressed by the handicapper’s decision to raise Bristol De Mai by 4lbs for falling at halfway in the King George, leaving a lofty rating of 173. Among steeplechasers in Britain, only Altior is rated higher. It will therefore be a boost to the quality of this National if the grey turns up, but all other entrants will be pushed down the weights, perhaps forcing riding plans to change. “There’s going to be a lot of people looking for 10-stone jockeys,” said Bromley.

Bristol De Mai goes down in the King George. Photograph: Steve Cargill/racingfotos.com/Rex/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the BHA has accepted it made a mistake in referring to the “free will” of horses in a press release on Sunday, when it was trying to explain why a trainer had been fined for encouraging his horse to go forward at the start. “The term should not be taken as evidence of a new philosophical stance towards horses,” a statement said.

Tuesday’s best bets

Lingfield’s jumps card has been frozen off but we still have an interesting card at Newcastle, where Straidnahanna (2.30) is still available at 9-1 after seemingly attracting some support from 12s. A leap of faith is required on the basis of his most recent runs but that was also true before he hit winning form at about this time last year, from the same handicap mark.

Encouragingly, Sue Smith is following her usual pattern of being in much better form in January than in December, when the grey last ran. In fact, Smith is on an extraordinary 47% strike-rate (8/17) this month. I can see Straidnahanna making a bold bid from the front on this drop back to Class Three level.

Earlier, the 5-4 is pretty good about Nestor Park (1.55), from the in-form Ben Pauling yard, dropping down from an ambitious Grade One tilt. At Wolves in the evening, Mister Music (5.10) appeals at 5-2 in the claimer.

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