Horse racing’s new approach

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With the hazards of horse racing being widely discussed, Shane Hannon takes a look at both the positives and negatives of the sport in general.

It was just last March when jockeys JT McNamara and Jonjo Bright suffered life-changing falls within a matter of weeks of each other. It was after these falls that the Jockeys Emergency Fund was set up in support of these two jockeys and their families. A charity race-day took place in Limerick on October 14th to help raise funds for the jockeys’ rehabilitation.

Other jockeys have had their lives changed irrevocably because of accidents on Irish racecourses; Shane Broderick is paralyzed from the neck down, while Jimmy Mansell and Matt O’Connor have both been very lucky to survive near-fatal injuries. These incidents have highlighted the sheer danger of the sport; and the sad fact is, the aforementioned jockeys are the lucky ones.

Admittedly the names Kieran Kelly, Sean Cleary, Dary Cullen and Jack Tyner aren’t instantly recognisable, but they are four jockeys who have all lost their lives on an Irish racecourse or point-to-point track within the last ten years. Apprentice jockey Ronan Lawlor was also killed in a fall on the gallops in 2010. Any jockey will tell you that that is five deaths too many; safety should be the number one priority in the sport, and sadly that is not currently the case.

The so-called ‘Sport of Kings’ has been described as one of controlled chaos. One need only watch the start of the Aintree Grand National to understand that horse racing truly is chaotic at times; entertaining, but chaotic.

A Welsh racecourse has followed Limerick’s example and will hold a fundraising day for JT McNamara in November. The clerk and general manager of the Welsh Ffos Las racecourse, Tim Long, has himself joined the debate on jockey safety, saying, “It is terrible when an accident occurs and the safety of both horse and rider is always our number one priority, but there are dangers.

“The Professional Jockeys Association is absolutely serious when they say that being a jockey is the only profession in which you are followed around by an ambulance.”

It must not be forgotten that it is not only the jockeys who are impacted by injuries; the horses themselves are affected when safety is left wanting. The main problem with horse injuries, however, is the fact that they so often result in the death of the animal. The United States’ Department of Agriculture conducted a survey in 2005, which found that injuries are the second leading cause of death in horses, after old age.

One of the most notorious races of the horse racing calendar in terms of horse injuries is the Aintree Grand National in Liverpool. For this year’s race in April, some safety measures were put in place after accidents the previous year. The 2012 race saw falls for the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and early favourite Synchronized, as well as According to Pete. Both horses sadly had to be euthanized after suffering leg fractures during the race.

For the 2013 event, 12 of the 16 fences were rebuilt with the timber frames within them replaced by a softer material known as plastic birch. The starting line was also moved 82 metres closer to the first fence, further away from the spectators’ stands and thereby reducing the overall distance of the race slightly to make it easier for the horses.

David Muir of the RSPCA responded to these changes by saying, “They have done more than I thought they would. Fundamentally, the changes that have been made are major already. They’ve taken the cores of the fences out, there is a cooling down area now, there’s a water system and there’s a reduction in the number of drop fences; [however] we’d still like to see changes to Becher’s Brook, the drop is still a concern.” The sport may never be 100% safe, but this is certainly a start.

Gambling is undoubtedly an issue that affects many sports, but it is safe to say that the punters and horse racing are inextricably linked. Anyone who has ever been to a horse racing meet will know that sticking on a bet is pretty much unavoidable.

Without a doubt it adds to the excitement and interest in the event, but there is always the danger that attending the horses is just the starting point for deeper gambling problems. Most betting websites that cater for those who want to bet on horse racing usually have the caveat, “All customers are urged to bet within your limits. If you feel you have a gambling problem, you may request a voluntary self-exclusion from entering branch offices and/or limit the daily or weekly wagering on your account.”

Gambling is of vital economic importance to horse racing; in 2008 it generated a worldwide market of around $115 billion. All this said, it cannot be denied that horse racing is an Irish national treasure.

Both chariot and mounted horse racing were events in the ancient Greek Olympics by 648 BC, so it undoubtedly has a rich history. Some big names in the sport hail from the Ireland. Trainers like Aidan O’Brien and Dermot Weld, jockeys like Ruby Walsh, Johnny Murtagh and Tony McCoy, and horses too; among them multiple Gold Cup winner Best Mate, while the great Red Rum was bred here.

There is a tendency when critically evaluating horse racing to unfairly weight that focus on the negative aspects of the sport. It is far from perfect, but with the Irish thoroughbred industry attracting significant foreign investment, there is the scope to improve the safety of all involved, allowing this great sport to go from strength to strength.

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