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Since the 12th century, horse racing has been recognised as a professional sport in the United Kingdom. Each year, thousands upon thousands of Brits attend horse racing events across the nation. Some of the United Kingdom’s most significant horse racing events include the Cheltenham Festival (taking place this year from the 10th – 13th March), the Randox Health Grand National Festival (2nd – 4th of April) and the Royal Ascot (16th – 20th of June). Despite its longstanding popularity, horse racing has, in recent years, been the subject of much controversy. Animal welfare organisations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have raised much concern about the safety of the horses.
‘Behind the romanticised façade of Thoroughbred horse racing is a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. While spectators show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, horses are running for their lives.’PETA
So, this leaves us with the question: should horse racing remain a British tradition or become a cruel sport of the past?
One of the most controversial British horse racing events is the Randox Health Grand National. Taking place at Aintree Racecourse (Merseyside), the festival spans across three days and attracts an average of 150,000 people – as well as an estimated global television audience of 600 million. The title race takes place on the last day of the festival (Saturday), and it is arguably one of the most gruelling and unpredictable horse races worldwide. The 40 horses involved in the race jump over 16 fences on their first circuit, 14 on their second circuit (so 30 in total), and those that complete the race will run a distance of four miles and two furlongs. Since the race’s inception in 1839, many measures have been introduced for the safety of the horses and their jockeys. For example, after the deaths of two horses in 2012, an official inquiry took place to assess the safety of the course. As a result of the investigations, changes were made to the Grand National course in order to make it safer. Such changes have included alterations to the fences shortening the distance of the race. From 2016, the Grand National distance was shortened from 4m4f (4 ½ miles) to 4m2f.
Despite these changes, a horse named ‘Up For Review’ tragically died as a result of an injury sustained during last year’s Grand National. There were also two unseats and three falls in the previous last years’ race. As well as all of this, only 19 of the 40 runners managed to finish – showing just how severe the competition is for horses. The Grand National has a higher death rate than any other horse race in the United Kingdom. It is for this reason, alongside the fact that it is an immensely difficult race, that animal welfare organisations have called for the race to be banned. However, it is not just the Grand National Race itself that has raised concern. A further two horses lost their lives during last year’s Grand National after sustaining fatal injuries in races taking place on the Friday of the festival. Furthermore, outside of the Grand National Festival itself, horses participating in British horse racing events every year face the risk of injury and, in some cases, death. For example, reportedly a total of just over 200 horses lost their lives in British races in 2018.
Another aspect of horse racing that many consider to be particularly cruel is the use of the whip. According to Animal Aid’s campaign to have the whip banned, horses are needlessly beaten for our entertainment, and they are the only animals to which this is permissible. Although the British Horse Racing Authority (BHA) conducts investigations around misuse of the whip, Animal Aid claim that jockeys found guilty of misconduct are never severely punished as they often still get to keep their riding fees and may not even lose their winnings. Whips can be used by jockeys to make their horses go faster, and it is this particular use that animal welfare groups want abolishing. However, the use of the whip in horse racing could never be completely banned since it is also used to guide horses when there is a risk of an accident.
Further ethical concerns surrounding horse racing that have been raised throughout the years include the use of drugs and race-fixing. This accompanies the fact that horses are being raced before they have reached full maturity, their treatment and the unnecessary slaughter of racehorses who, for whatever reason, cannot race anymore. Despite the obvious risks and the ethical concerns that horse racing poses, we must recognise the efforts that have been put in place to make it safe for all those involved.
Those involved in British horse racing events demonstrate high levels of care for racehorses. Owners and trainers of horses are seen to express delight when their horses do well in races, concern when they have fallen or injured themselves and deep remorse when horses must be put down. Furthermore, the welfare of both horses and jockeys is of paramount importance to the British Horse Racing Authority: “Together with the recognised welfare charities, the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare, BHA is a leading signatory of the National Equine Protocol. The standards demanded by BHA of all licensed participants, including jockeys and trainers, far exceed those prescribed by animal welfare legislation.
There is no denying that horseracing is a risky sport for the beautiful animals who participate in it. Yet, there is also no denying that the safety of racehorses is vital to those responsible for British horse racing events. Also, the sport’s immense popularity with British people suggests that a lot of people believe that racehorses are relatively safe. After all, as a so-called nation of animal lovers, surely so many people wouldn’t express enthusiasm for the sport if they thought horses were facing extreme levels of cruelty? Therefore, it seems that, for the time being, horse racing will remain one of Britain’s sporting traditions.