Is radical change the only answer for the long-term survival of the Grand National?

In the last 6 Grand Nationals, including today’s, 6 horses have died. Graphic Approach died some time after being injured in the 2007 race and I have not counted him.

In the same period, 5 horses died in The Topham and 1 in The Foxhunters. Six horses also died over hurdles at Aintree in the same period and two horses died in NH flat races (4 died over fences on The Mildmay course).

I could have carried on and dissected the stats by runner, by comparison to other courses etc., but in the end what will matter is how racing explains itself to the public on days like these and, crucially, how it keeps the welfare organisations on its side. I’ve long thought that the RSPCA’s support for NH racing is a short-head away from being untenable. The whip controversy did substantial damage to racing’s relationship with the RSPCA and I think today’s fatalities will see the boardroom door at RSPCA HQ finally slammed on the Grand National and, sooner rather than later, on NH racing itself.

I suspect there might well be some table-banging going on at the next Heineken board meeting too (they own the John Smith’s brand). And what about Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR)? They hold a prime hand of UK racecourses – Aintree included. JCR put all their profits back into racing but they run a tightly-focused organisation acutely tuned to the commercial impact of their decisions.  They’ll have little doubt that turnstile income won’t be affected by fatalities, but the change to CH4, the sensitivity of sponsors and the vulnerability of their brand to Animal Rights groups will need to be taken into consideration.

“They either take to them or they don’t”

So what is it about the race that causes carnage? Speed, say many professionals, and the temptation to go faster has been heightened by the changes intended to make the fences easier, the elimination of drops and shaving of heights.

Speed contributes, but I think the fences are the main problem.  Steeplechasers spend 99% of their careers jumping park fences (the standard black birch barriers you find everywhere except Aintree and at Cross Country courses).  Did you see Synchronised today when AP let him have a look at the first fence before cantering back to the start? Something spooked him there – it might have been the crowds or a camera or something, but it could have been the fence itself.

Why do some horses run well time and again at Aintree (Always Waining anyone?), while many pull up,  fall or refuse? Could it be simple unfamiliarity or fear?

The Grand National fences are built on a foundation of solid wooden stakes dressed with tons of spruce.  They’re dauntingly big and wide with an unusual colour, from a horse’s viewpoint. Racehorses like routine. Most don’t relish being asked  to face something they’ve never previously encountered.  Some, a rare few, find the experience refreshing and galvanising; others see it as an ordeal.

The performance of horses over Cross Country courses – Cheltenham’s being the only UK example – back up this theory. The same horses do well on these unusual tracks time and time again.

“Lessons will be learned”

Aintree and Racing plc cannot simply keep pleading this argument after each Grand National. Two horses died last year: ‘improvements’ were made: two horses died this year.

What will result from the review of this year’s race?

My opinion is that the only long-term solution will be to strip away the spruce, burn the wooden stakes and build standard steeplechase fences of regular height. A £1m prize will ensure the quality of the race and size of the field is not diluted, The extreme distance will still make it a unique test.  The public will not be discouraged from betting on it, horses will no longer be taken by surprise and more of them will survive the race.

The nostalgia branded on my heart will mourn the passing of these fences (I had the honour of writing the words inscribed on Red Rum’s gravestone and of being present, alongside Ginger at his burial), but I’d sooner see these fences consigned to history than lose the race itself.


Maguire – whip should not be banned

Jason Maguire has spoken about the whip debate, claiming his ban after the Grand National was not the catalyst for the current whip review by the BHA.

“I did not go out to hurt Ballabriggs – we’re horsemen and we love horses,” he told the Yorkshire Post.

“I broke the rules and I got suspended for what I did. I accept that. It happened. But how would people have responded if I had not ridden the horse out – and got caught on the line? I would have been accused of not trying.

“There’s a lot of talk that the review has been pre-empted by my National ride. It has not. The National is just one race. We need to look at the whole sport. If you take sticks away, you will have horses refusing or pulling up before the final fence – particularly at a course like Towcester, with an uphill finish.

“Momentum is crucial to getting over an obstacle – and a jockey knows that the horse must come first. Would people be happy if there were races where no horse finished? You also need them for keeping a true course.”

Full article here

Pro-whip lobby – agree on your case or lose the debate

As it’s already in the public domain, I doubt Graham Cunningham (@gcunning12) will mind me publishing one of his tweets from today;

“I’m afraid I don’t get your pt. Here is mine. Horses get their arses smacked with a padded whip to win races. I support that”

Graham has been calling for someone to step up to the plate and rally those in favour of keeping the whip rules pretty much as they are. Sean Boyce feels just as strongly about the issue as Graham does (@boyciesbetting). Dave Yates feels the same (@thebedfordfox). No doubt many others would march through the Aye lobby for maintaining the status quo, but let me concentrate on these three gentlemen because each makes his living from horse racing. Graham, Sean and David are experienced professionals, with good minds and the ability to structure a solid argument.

Sean and David have put their cases already this week on their blogs (summaries and links within this article). Graham’s campaign, from what I can see, has been conducted forcefully on twitter. Sean’s belief is that things are fine as they are  and racing should not move to appease ‘public opinion’ when there is no convincing proof that ‘the public’ want to see a change in the whip rules.

The core of David’s case, put with admirable honesty, is that a battle to the line without whips is little more than a ‘fun run’ which will emasculate the spectacle and the contest. David argues about the effect on international competition of a ‘whipless finish’ and adds two or three more planks – including this ‘no evidence of public opinion’ point. But he’s also brave enough to write this:

Every person who works in racing should face themselves in the mirror once a day, and repeat, ‘My name is David, and I work in an industry of animal exploitation.’ If you aren’t called David, feel free to use your actual name.
It’s a truth many people struggle with, but horses are conceived, foaled, reared and trained as the cornerstone of a huge industry.

That seems to sum up the case for the pro-lobby: whips work, a horse might get stung a few times but will suffer no lasting harm; effective regulation is in place, the ‘public opinion’ line is a phantom one, let’s leave things alone.

But it’s too late for that line of argument in my opinion. The court is now sitting as the BHA has announced a review and the pros will not have the ‘entitlement’ to a jury of their peers, because part of the terms of reference appears to include a ‘for the good of racing’ clause. This indicates, to me, at least, that the ‘public opinion’ aspect will be taken into consideration. If so, Dave Yates’s paragraph (above) will be exhibit A for the ‘hands and heels’ advocates.

The case argued by the antis lobby seems a strong one – not just to the man on the Clapham omnibus. Much of its credence comes from the fact that a number of racing professionals – just as experienced and passionate as David, Sean and Graham – believe it’s time to go in the hands and heels direction.

My belief for some time was that H&H was the way to go if racing truly wanted to widen its appeal. But Mark Johnston’s blog article pushed me strongly in the other direction. The vet turned trainer appears to make a most convincing case for the status quo, based on the assertion that it actually improves a horse’s chances of avoiding injury (he likens it to a boxer slapped by his seconds as he faces the final round – to remind him to ‘keep his chin tucked in’ and look after himself).

That theory, in my opinion, offers the pro-whip lobby their best chance. But to succeed in this ‘court’, they must abandon all supplementary arguments and throw everything behind MJ’s belief about the equine benefits of whip use. Strong evidence must be marshalled, more experts who share MJ’s view recruited.

I spoke at some length to RSPCA consultant David Muir on Thursday (article here) and he told me he thought there was something in what Mark Johnston says. The pro-lobby ought to seize on this. Mr Muir did not seem to think the theory carried a lot of weight but at least he accepted a measure of it and he seems like a man who, provided with sufficient corroboration, might move closer to the MJ camp. (This is just my interpretation – David Muir did not say he would – the MJ article was discussed only briefly).

One thing Mr Muir was certain about was that things cannot continue as they are. He  is of the opinion that once a jockey adopts the forehand grip there is an implication that he is intent on causing pain. Nobody would expect the RSPCA to condone the gratuitous application of pain to an animal. For all that the BHA have promised to consult widely and in some detail, it seems highly likely that the foremost concern in their minds will be the views of the RSPCA.  If the co-operation of that organisation is lost to racing, the long-term fallout could prove terminal for the popularity of our sport.

Backhand position only for whip most likely outcome of BHA review says David Muir, RSPCA consultant

David Muir, the RSPCA consultant who works closely with racing on behalf of the charity, has been in the news lately.  David very kindly gave me twenty minutes of his time yesterday to record the following interview. 

“Recent media coverage seems to have given the impression that excessive whip use has suddenly become an issue because of the Grand National and Jason Maguire’s suspension.  The fact is the RSPCA and myself have been concerned about incorrect use of the whip in racing for a long time, and I have done a lot of work on the issue with a number of people.

“Although the RSPCA have always taken a pragmatic view on the whip, and indeed on racing, things are now getting out of hand.  Unless something is done about excessive use of the whip, I can see it being banned completely and that is something I don’t want to see.  The whip is needed for safety and discipline in races but how do you quantify encouragement?  That’s the area that needs addressing.

“I’ve read Mark Johnston’s piece where he says that horses need to feel the whip as they tire towards the finish, for their own safety, to keep them running straight in a balanced fashion.  To a degree Mark has a point but what you can’t do is defend the indefensible.  If the application of pain is a necessary ingredient for racing, then I see racing going into an area that’s problematic.

“The whip is a work in progress.  The one used now in racing bears no comparison whatever to the whip used five years ago. If I’d have hit myself hard on the back of the hand with a whip from five years ago, I’d break all four fingers.  I could do it with the current whip and not even leave a mark.

“The current whip has a cylindrical core covered with foam.  As it tapers down to the part which strikes the horse, it flattens out into a foam covered paddle which gives on contact with the horse and the reduction in pain, compared with the old whip, is dramatic.

“Used in the backhand style, the whip is perfectly acceptable, it’s when jockeys change to the forehand there is an implication that they want to apply as much pain as possible, and that’s where I fall out.

“We need to make sure that the correct balance is reached in whip design and in its use by jockeys. Doubling the foam-covering for example would make the whip useless for correction and discipline purposes.  But used in the backhand position, I can never see a point in the future where I, or the RSPCA, would have a problem with the whip and that is the way I think the BHA will go with this.

“The only alternative I can see to that is that the whip is to be carried for safety and correction only, as in the current hands and heels races.

“The whole point of me, and the RSPCA working side by side with racing is to try to help understand both sides of the issues as we work to improve the welfare of horses.  It’s alright standing outside and criticising racing but when you are working with racecourse management and the BHA, as we do, you see the problems they face.

“For example, I’m working closely at the moment on a hurdle design project with students at Southampton University, which is due to finish next month.  For a year we’ve been looking at hurdle design. Along with four graduates, we’ve been examining design to see if we can improve safety in hurdling and reduce fatalities.  I’m not in racing simply to criticise, I’m there to work with those involved to try to improve things”.

On the question of disqualification of a horse if its jockey is found guilty of improper use of the whip, David said:

“The Jockey should be disqualified, not the horse. Disqualifying the horse affects many other people; owners, trainers, punters, the whole system of betting.  Just imagine a jockey who wants to actually lose a race, he knows excessive use will get the horse disqualified”.

I asked David if he was involved in the decision to ask jockeys to dismount immediately after the Grand National.  He said:

“This is another issue that’s been taken completely out of context. I’ve been involved with the National now for fourteen years.  When I first went there I fought like billy-o to get loads of water and I’ve got it now, about a hundred buckets and big tanks full of water with ice-bags in them.

“When the horses come in after four and a half miles, they’re very hot.  Tim Morris (equine science and welfare director for the BHA) gave an instruction this year to jockeys to get off as soon they got in, get the saddles off and get water on the horses to cool them down. It wasn’t just the winner that got the treatment, I must have thrown water over twenty or thirty horses.  It’s a welfare issue and a good thing for racing to do”.

Asked about the image the hurried scrambling with water gave to the public, David said, “I think there was a major PA problem there.  They should have explained what was going on.  It’s a bit like when the screens go up on the course; everybody just assumes it’s a dead horse but that’s not always the case.

“Racing needs to take another step forward in explaining things.  The whip is a classic example.  Most people don’t know about the structure of a whip and how it behaves in use.  We need to be more open and help people understand things much better”.

We touched on the situation in Australia where the RSPCA were instrumental in getting NH racing  banned in all but two states.  David made the point that there’s almost no resemblance to jump racing there and in the UK, in the quality and type of horses used.  He said:

“I can never see a situation where the RSPCA would support a call for the banning of National Hunt racing in Britain. Remember, what we are about is the prevention of cruelty and the definition of cruelty is ‘the gratuitous application of pain for the enjoyment of the person who’s doing it’. Now where in racing does the term ‘cruel’ fit?  Tragic?  Yes. Cruel? I can’t see that. The RSPCA does not try to justify the deaths of racehorses, but we will work tirelessly to reduce them. It’s a high risk sport and the RSPCA’s position in it is to help make it as risk-free as possible”.

On Towcester’s decision to have only ‘hands and heels’ races from October 5th onwards David said, “It’s a brave and positive way forward and I congratulate them on their courage and tenacity in the face of these recent concerns about whip use”.

Towcester won’t wait for BHA whip review – all races ‘hands and heels’ only from October 5th

The Telegraph reports that Towcester has pre-empted the whip review currently being conducted by the BHA and banned the conventional use of whips.

From the track’s meeting on Oct 5 and at all fixtures afterwards, every race staged at the course will be run under rules currently in place for the successful ‘hands and heels’ series of races.

This series, run in conjunction with the British and Northern racing schools, is staged at a number of tracks both Flat and jumping, and is ostensibly to teach inexperienced jockeys and amateur riders how to get the best out of a horse without recourse to the whip.

One of the rules of that series is that jockeys must carry a whip. They can pull it through from one hand to the other as often as they like and hit a horse down the shoulder with it in a backhand position. However, they cannot smack a horse down the neck in the forehand position, behind the saddle or encourage it by waving the whip parallel to its head. Failure to obey the rules in this series results in automatic disqualification. After Oct 5th, any winner at Towcester whose jockey is found by the stewards to be in breach of these rules will be disqualified.

On hearing the news, the BHA’s head of communications, Paul Struthers said, “We are already conducting a review into our rules and whip use in racing. We have only just received Towcester’s proposal and will need to consider it before discussing it with them.”

Sam Waley-Cohen’s Aintree ban ‘denied common sense’ says his father

In an Oxford Mail interview concentrating mostly on the point-to-point interests of the Waley-Cohens, Robert Waley-Cohen commented on son Sam’s Aintree ‘offence’  Having fallen from Turko in the Fox Hunters’ Chase, Sam was among four jockeys who were handed suspensions for remounting and returning to the unsaddling area without their horses being examined by a racecourse vet.

Robert said, “I thought it defied commonsense,” he says. “At Aintree the distances are huge and I am glad to say in point-to-points riders are allowed to self-certify and remount their horses and ride back to the paddock.”

I commented on this blog and on twitter at the time the ban was announced that it seemed trivial, and, more importantly, inconsistent.

Had the incident involved the same four jockeys and horses but had taken place at a point-to-point, there would have been no offence and no punishment.  The BHA regulates both codes and it is silly inconsistencies like this which help prevent racing from presenting itself to potential customers as a fair and sensibly regulated sport.

If you can’t get the small things right, what chance have you with the Grand Nationals?

At the time of the bans, I had a lengthy debate with the BHA’s head of communications, Paul Struthers, asking him the question ‘Is the welfare of horses in point-to-points less important than those running at Aintree?”

I am still awaiting an answer.

UPDATE: Paul Struthers contacted me on twitter after redaing thsi and here is his verbatim response:

I really don’t recall an extensive conversation on that topic. If we have had one I’m sorry but I just don’t remember it. You certainly asked if I’d respond to some of the post-Aintree blogs but I’ve simply not had time I’m afraid, there’s just been too much on. As for RWCs quote, I very much disagree. And we do not regulate PTP in the same way as racing at all. We very much believe that the same rule should apply but the Point to Point Authority doesn’t currently agree. As for Aintree incident, what is so hard about waiting for a couple of minutes, having caught your horse, for the vet to clear the horse as fit to be hacked back?

You can follow me on twitter here

Joe McNally

Grand National ‘cruelty complaints’ from BBC viewers more than 10 times higher than last year

The BBC press office confirmed today that, from a peak audience of 8.8 million, they received 313 complaints about the Grand National, up from just 29 complaints last year.

After the 2011 Grand National, complaints regarding animal cruelty were at their highest in 10 years, mostly directed at the coverage of the horse deaths. The breakdown:

161 about coverage of horse deaths
103 people felt the BBC should not cover GN
8 from viewers unhappy with whip usage

The BBC press office points out that the degree of  general media coverage after the Grand National might have played some part in the increase in the volume of compaints.

Here is the BBC’s response to viewer complaints about the coverage of the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s gate

We have received some complaints from viewers who are unhappy with how we covered the death of two horses during The Grand National on 9 April 2011.

In covering The Grand National, we have to strike a balance between covering the race as well as reflecting incidents that occur on the race track.

We reacted with as much care as possible given the very sad circumstances surrounding the death of the two horses.

We used the wide helicopter camera to cover any distressing scene as this provided the most distant angle available to us. We knew families with young children could be watching the race, so we tried to cover the deaths of the horses with as much sympathy as we could to ensure we minimised the distress this may cause our viewers.

Ultimately, our aim is to bring our audience the most comprehensive coverage of The Grand National; and we acknowledge that, when such sad events happen, it is hard to satisfy everyone with the manner in which they are covered

The breakdown of complaint categories from the BBC figures differs substantially from those reported by Channel 4 and the BHA where the main issue for complainers who contacted those organisations was whip use in the Grand National.  Full article here

The BBC also commented on another article I wrote prior to the Grand National regarding the effect of their coverage on the non-racing public.  Here is that article.

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Joe McNally