Dignity In Death

I realise I am at risk of being called a stupid sentimentalist for writing this article but it is something I need to get off my chest.

It is a sad reality that in this sport of ours some horses will pay the ultimate price during a race, especially in National Hunt racing. Although it has to be admitted, thankfully, the number of fatalities is declining thanks to better regulation and safer course design.

In most cases, although not a pleasant job, the matter is dealt with efficiently and with a certain amount of dignity, or as much dignity as can be mustered in removing a dead horse from the course.

Most courses utilise a separate box for the removal of dead horses and at the overwhelming majority of courses the box used for this task looks no different than the horse ambulance or any small horsebox.

To the uninitiated or casual observer they would not know if the horse was being taken away in an ambulance or knackers box. To those “in the know” the usual difference is the ambulance is towed by a 4x4 and the knackers box by a tractor.

This is not to say racing should gloss over fatalities on the course, far from it and whenever I report on a race which has seen a horse pay the ultimate price, I mention it.

By contrast the approach of the Press Association when producing their “comments in running” is questionable in they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge any equine fatality. Such an approach plays into the hands of opponents of the sport, who will rightly claim the deaths are being covered up.

At Hexham on Saturday the old Cartmel stalwart Michaels Dream was tragically killed at the first flight in the home straight and later on in the afternoon Jamaica Man broke down on his debut, also in the home straight, although in this case further away from the crowds.

Instead of using a “box” to remove the horses from the course, the means of disposal was a flat bed trailer on the back of a tractor and once loaded the body was covered by throwing a tarpaulin over the top.

I know we have to accept the “ugly” side of our sport but having a horse dragged onto the back of a flat bed trailer just seemed to be totally lacking in dignity and added to what was already a distressing scene.

I am not suggesting that we anthropomorphise horses but I see no issue with affording them some dignity. My view is not unique, I heard several comments at the course, including from seasoned, dare I say hardened, racegoers saying it did not look good.

As I have already said there is no easy way to remove dead horses but by using a box, similar to the horse ambulance, it visually lessens the impact and affords some decency for the noble beast.

After all, should a human die in the street the body is still taken away by ambulance, it is not loaded into the back of a truck and covered with a tarpaulin.

There are those who would argue that Hexham’s approach is right and the fact horses die should not be hidden from the public.

To an extent I agree, although if the courses were to forward that argument, I would counter they should also not be afraid to announce over the PA when a horse has been “killed in action”. Racegoers want to know, racegoers need to know, racegoers have a right to know.

I hope that Hexham will get rid of the flat bed and follow the example of other courses in using a box to remove their casualties.

I must stress my only criticism of Hexham is in the use of the flat bed for removing the corpse. The speed of response by the veterinary teams and the care given to the horses was, as always, exemplary.

Indeed compared with the treatment or "care" afforded to stricken horses at, for example, some French provincial courses, we have absolutely nothing to complain about in this country.

At a time when our sport, and especially the jumping game, is coming under constant attack bromy the so called “animal rights” lobby, we in racing need to avoid scoring own goals.

In the scheme of things the use of a flat bed is probably the least of racings worries but it is a simple one to address.      

Prior to publishing this article I did send a copy to Hexham racecourse for comment and received the following response from Managing Director, Charles Enderby, “Although we have never had criticism over the years of our flatbed, I think, as you point out, it is time for improvement.

I plan to use our old Horse Ambulance for future collection of dead horses.  Hopefully this will start on the 6th November, but if the adaption takes a little longer, it will be in use for our 18th November meeting onwards.”

Full marks to Charles Enderby for his proactive response.

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