It wasn't the decision not to run big names at Ascot on Saturday that necessarily worried our columnist, but some of the potentially dangerous language used in the aftermath.
On Sunday morning, trainer Nicky Henderson lost patience with questions about the withdrawal of Constitution Hill. Unfortunately for Ascot racecourse and those fellow trainers who ran their horses, his defensive embroidery stitched them - and potentially the sport itself - right up. He wasn’t alone – Alan King had already suggested a track issue broader than Edwardstone’s specific needs.
Did this generate an urgent investigation into how a race meeting went ahead under such dangerous conditions? Or questions being put to those whose horses took part about their lack of responsibility? Conversely, were these assertions rigorously challenged?
No, because yet again vexed hyperbole and its accompanying indulgence obscured the far more fundamental questions raised by last weekend’s events. The subjects of welfare principles, climate change, and a lack of objective, accessible data were trumped in preference for a heavily over-rehearsed routine we’ve all seen played out far too many times before.
It’s easy to have some sympathy for trainers who find themselves in a maelstrom of conflicting views whilst trying to do the right thing by their specific horse. But sadly, any disproportionate comments are not only heard by those who can interpret them. They are public statements, received by many who might take them at face value. Worse, those who seek to outlaw this sport would have been taking careful notes to exploit their literal meaning.
The infuriating aspect in Henderson’s case is that he did so much so right on the Saturday when confirming his brilliant Supreme winner would be a non-runner. He’d flagged the likelihood the previous day, walked the course with members of the media and – most strikingly – used his stick to illustrate how much deeper it had penetrated his turf at home than it had been able to do at Ascot. It was only when interviewed the following morning on Sky Sports Racing’s Racing Debate programme that his language became intemperate.
Twelve of Ascot’s paltry 45 declarations were withdrawn due to the ground, yet a more compelling debate about the likely impact of climate change on Britain’s existing fixture list – broached by Matt Chapman on the Saturday – was obscured by needlessly inflammatory claims about a sport already operating under the intense scrutiny of societal concerns about its use of animals. With heavy dramatic irony, this was the very cause invoked.
The immediate context of this episode also includes the decision of Arena Racing Company (ARC) to relocate four fixtures from Sedgefield to alternative northern venues within its group between December and May. This follows the death of two horses in the same race at the track’s most recent meeting on 3 November, which forced both its abandonment and that of a meeting scheduled a week later.
The BHA’s racecourse inspectorate examined Sedgefield in light of those fatalities, concluding the incidents were not linked and that the track should retain its licence to race because it was safe to do so. ARC have realigned a bend and opted to go further by giving its turf more time to recover between fixtures. They will also address an adverse camber over the summer, when experts will have the necessary access to neighbouring land and the displaced turf receive sufficient time to bed in after major reconstruction work.
Nonetheless, today’s meeting at Sedgefield inevitably goes ahead in an atmosphere of jeopardy. The loose talk generated by Saturday’s events is anything but helpful in this context.
“If I’d have ran Constitution Hill in that ground yesterday, in my opinion, he’d have been in his box for a year, wounded,” Henderson asserted on Racing Debate.
“…No people in our world, the people that walk the courses, know the horses and have to accept the consequences of what happens when you run on that ground, there’s no possible way we would’ve taken that chance. It would’ve been suicidal, stupid and in the interest of horse welfare, we should’ve been banned for life if we had…
“…It’s got to be something to do with that long, dry summer in that this rain is coming in and we’re all happy and all of a sudden – bingo – the ground goes from good-to-soft to good to good-to-firm. That was good-to-firm yesterday. Make no mistake about that.”
On a point of stone-cold fact, it was not good-to-firm ground at Ascot on Saturday. Henderson is wrong, just as he was wrong when he called Sandown’s ground “heavy” when – to cite an episode to which he repeatedly alludes – pulling Altior out of the Tingle Creek almost two years ago. On Sandown’s chase course, it was on the cusp between soft and good-to-soft, on balance the latter. At Ascot, it was on the cusp between good-to-soft and good, on balance the latter.
Ground categories can be – and are – measured objectively via times. Whilst one might argue the toss over the difference between, say, ‘good, good-to-soft in places’ and ‘good’, there is no credible analysis of Saturday’s times that possibly results in labelling that ground ‘good-to-firm’. This is not a subjective interpretation. It is basic mathematics. And as we have all discovered to our cost in recent years, alternative facts are dangerously undermining of reality.
Subjective assessments of the ground as it might affect an individual horse are a different matter and therefore the language used to convey this point should change accordingly. It was entirely possible for Henderson to have said of Constitution Hill, as he rightly did on Saturday: “That ground is unfortunately not suitable for this horse.”
Yet what was said the following day risked a passing audience, or worse a hostile audience, believing the sport knowingly allowed racing to go ahead on ground anyone who walked it would have known was unsafe, and by extension that those trainers who ran their horses lacked judgment, and lesser horses are treated more expendably than Cheltenham Festival winners. As with the Altior scenario, he testily invoked “welfare” as a shield to deflect personal criticism when in fact he was unwittingly wielding a sword of self-sabotage for the whole sport.
King drew on his own professional assessment when stating: “We’ve only had a handful of runners at Ascot this season and most of them have come back with a problem.” He’s raced three horses over Jumps there to date this term, one of which – Betterforeveryone – he reported as having returned “jarred up” from racing there on Friday.
Using King’s own words, we must therefore conclude at least one of his other two horses developed a problem that he links directly with racing there. Statistically speaking, a sample size of three is not a sufficiently robust measure on which to base more fundamental claims. However, in making the decision to withdraw Edwardstone, again he did not need to go that far – albeit he is absolutely within his rights to express to Ascot any wider concerns he might hold.
To be clear: this is not an article arguing that Henderson, King and Venetia Williams – who withdrew L’Homme Pressé – should have run their horses. Those who might pretend otherwise are (again) missing the point. It is inarguably the responsibility of individual trainers to make such decisions based on the needs of their individual horses and their preferred campaigns.
Admittedly, there is a complicating ongoing narrative about small field sizes and a perceived lack of appetite among trainers to race their horses often enough to fulfil the upper echelons of the fixture list. However, again this issue is more complex than three Cheltenham Festival winners missing their intended comebacks.
It involves (but may not be limited to) matters such as the growth of ‘super-trainers’ collecting talent into too few hands, an inadequate population of suitable horses being bred, too many viable dual-purpose horses racing on the Flat around the globe, an uncompetitive graded programme in Britain, the trend of British-based owners basing horses in Ireland, whether there should be a joint Anglo-Irish Pattern, the part played by available prize money, and climate change.
Does the fixture list need to be reimagined to adapt to global warming? Where does Jump racing sit within this dynamic? Can summer jumping survive? Will it be ethically acceptable for racecourses to utilise vast quantities of water to maintain safe ground? These are the conversations we should be having with our leading protagonists.
On Sunday at Exeter, after reminding Racing TV viewers that L’Homme Pressé had in the past suffered a tendon injury, Williams appeared deliberately to open the door to radical, principle-based debate that Henderson had kicked ajar earlier. “It’s no secret that I don’t do summer racing because I think the injuries – mainly it’s tendon injuries – that occur on good ground and drier [are] not for me and our horses,” she said.
That’s GOOD ground or drier – a large statement that demands a wider conversation as it runs contrary to most fans’ perception and the BHA’s own guidance to racecourses on ground preparation.
The public must be able to believe that when the sport’s record on welfare is placed under the spotlight – as it is currently at Sedgefield, and has also been in recent years at Southwell, Cheltenham and Aintree – that the authorities and participants can be trusted to do the right thing. If racecourses and trainers are accused of acting irresponsibly and inconsistently, does that not drip-drip undermine the sport’s moral authority?
Yet there is also a lack of transparency in this debate from the BHA, meaning I am unable to state with confidence what the fatality/injury rate might be at any specific track and therefore to discuss what level of risk is deemed acceptable. This is understandable to some degree but doesn’t account for those already debating this fundamental subject online, who have instead resorted to crunching data kept by Animal Aid, an animal-rights organisation that seeks to outlaw the sport.
The BHA pointed me to their fatality and faller rates up to 2021, published here.
“That will be updated for 2022 early in the new year, which is something the sport has committed to doing for a number of years now, in terms of making that data public,” a spokesperson added. “As far as specific course data, the BHA works privately with courses to monitor individual trends, as well as with participants to ensure our courses are as safe as they can be.”
Racecourses have a responsibility to provide safe, accurately described ground, and obstacles that by their construction and siting do not ask an unreasonable risk of those – rider and horse – who jump them. Trainers have a responsibility to produce their horses in an appropriate physical condition to negotiate those racecourses without undue risk brought about by any bodily or preparatory inadequacy.
Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) to minimise risk and to ensure no injury or fatality occurs that could reasonably have been prevented. Its most evident recent initiatives include evolutions in the design and structure of obstacles, and the introduction of pre-race screening at the Cheltenham and Aintree Grand National Festivals.
The latter system asks trainers to provide 35 days’ worth of medication records and to flag any long-lasting treatments, supplemented by video evidence if a horse has an unusual gait. Potential runners are classified green, amber or red as a result, and this knowledge is combined with objective veterinary examinations on the day to determine whether a horse can run.
As in Australia for the Melbourne Cup, this approach has revealed that, unbeknown to their trainers and owners, some horses – just like some human athletes – can be carrying a condition or impairment that would not routinely come to light despite the closest of attention and best veterinary care at home. Ideally such measures would be more widely applied but they require finance, resource and staff.
Yet is the amount of money committed to research and development for the benefit of its participants by the British racing industry sufficient compared with other sports facing similar existential questions? Looking at – for instance – the data-rich resource of RugbySafe on the RFU website, about essential matters such as tackling and head injuries, I can’t help but fear not.
So, to an overwhelming degree, fans like myself are required merely to trust that those who regulate this sport ceaselessly seek to improve their understanding of risk via appropriate funding and data-gathering – and that those who host and participate in it are adequately informed, resourced and supported to act on that learning.
This very grave transaction goes by the name of the social licence. Not only should it not be carelessly undermined, but this sport should be doing so much more actively to strengthen it.
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