Injuries And Starts

I’m returning to one of racing’s thorny issues, one some people in the sport would rather be swept under the carpet, the issue of what happens when a horse is badly injured in a race.

My regular reader will know last time I covered this subject it resulted in getting Hexham to stop using a flatbed trailer for removing fatally injured horses from the course, I’m not sure I will be able to achieve the same level of success this time, as this issue is far more complex and, indeed, does not have a “right or wrong” answer.

There was been a great deal of Tweeting last weekend following Dansimar breaking down in the Handicap Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday afternoon.  

It was after the final hurdle on the first circuit that Dansimar broke her leg and was pulled up and dismounted by her rider.

Map showing location of injured horse and screensThe map shows where the screens were (S) and where the horse pulled up (H) (image © Google Earth)

Anybody with a basic knowledge of physics will know it is impossible, without a collision, to stop immediately, so it was quite a few yards after the hurdle that Dansimar eventually pulled up. This resulted in it taking a while to actually get the screens to and up around the stricken horse.

Putting up the screens was further hampered by the combination of the screens being a large size, strong winds and there only being two lads tasked with handling the screens. As a result it, arguably, took longer than is ideal to put the screens up and, when up, they struggled to keep the screens in place.

There is actually no time specified for the mounting of screens, the BHA guidelines say it should be rapid and, taking into account the position of the stricken horse and the prevailing conditions I don’t think the screens could have been erected more rapidly. The only possible improvement there could have been is more people available to handle the screens from the outset.

It is a very difficult situation when a horse is stricken in front of the enclosures and there is a delicate balance between doing what is necessary to ensure the horse suffers as little as possible and the “sensibilities” of the spectators.  

When a horse is injured on the far side of the course or away from spectators then it is possible for the vet to despatch the horse even before the screens are put up.

In front of the stands this is clearly more difficult.  

I can still vividly recall Joe Lively breaking his leg in front of the stands at Cheltenham on New Years’ Day and it took far longer than at Sandown for the screens to be erected, yet I don’t recall any outcry about the delay and Joe Lively’s injury was “visually” far worse than that of Dansimar. Perhaps the fact Dansimar was a lovely grey tugged at the heartstrings more than had she been a plain bay?

There are other issues around putting horses down when close to the crowds. There was a vet on scene very quickly but she did not seem to have the means to put Dansimar down and it was not until after the race, a good four or five minutes after the injury occurred, another vet arrived and did what was necessary.

Even then it seems they opted to put her down using an injection rather than shooting her. Even though the gun has a silencer there seems to be a reluctance to shoot horses when the injury has occurred in front of the enclosures. Indeed looking back over the years I can only once recall hearing the “crack” of a gun when a horse has died in front of the stands.

I suppose the issue is what should be the greatest priority? Should it be ensuring the horse is relieved of its suffering as soon as humanly possible or is it acceptable to delay in order not to upset the sensibilities of the crowd?

The “simple” answer would be to ensure the horse is relieved of any suffering as soon as possible but life, of course, is not that simple.

I recall attending a French provincial meeting where there were no screens on site at all and a horse had to be put down in front of the crowd – it was a thoroughly unpleasant, distressing sight, especially as it was injected rather than shot.

So I would not advocate putting a horse down in front of the stands before the screens were erected.

However I would question whether delaying putting a horse down to avoid having to shoot it is a good idea. Most racegoers are realistic and when they see a horse with a serious injury they are aware of the consequences.   With a properly silenced gun there would only be a small crack and, again I think most racegoers would “accept” it was a necessary thing to do.

In this country we do have some of the best, if not the best, racing welfare conditions in the world, be it for horses or jockeys. There is little, if anything, fundamentally wrong with the system we currently have.

Sadly fatalities do happen in racing, it is something we as followers of the sport have to accept. It does not mean we have to like what happens when horses are hurt, nor should we become desensitised to it . . . .  indeed, if the day ever came when I was not moved by a horse being killed or injured,  then I would know it was time to walk away from the sport.

Just a couple of suggestions which could, perhaps, be considered.

  • Courses should consider having extra sets of screens available, away from fences but in front of the enclosures so they can be erected more quickly.

 

  • When conditions are windy then extra staff should be utilised to assist with erecting and holding up the screens.
  • When a horse does need to be put down the vets use the quickest means available to do the job, even if that does entail using a gun in front of the stands.

 

Sandown’s meeting on Saturday provided another controversial talking point, that of fair starts.

Of course this particular controversy just happened to happen before the big handicap of the afternoon.

The controversy began when one of the fancied runners, Lush Life, spread a plate and had to be re-shod at the start.

As an aside a large number of observers seem to see no issue with runners being re-shod whilst at the start.

I must confess I have reservations.

Is it fair that his 19 rivals had to continue walking round at the start, still with riders on their back, whist he was re-shod? As I said though, that is another issue.

Once he was re-shod she walked away from the field , presumably to trop-up to get accustomed to the new shoes.

He was still off the main group of runners when the starter let the field go, effectively ending any chance he may have had of winning the race.

So, in effect, the race was delayed to allow a leading fancy to be re-shod, yet the tardy start effectively nullified the reason for the delay – another embarrassing moment for the sport and featured on terrestrial television as well.

The Stewards held an enquiry, the findings of which revealed little and the matter was referred to the BHA.

Now if this were a one-off it may, just may, be excusable. However barely a week goes by where we do not have some form of farcical start on the NH circuit, where either a runner “gets a flyer” or where the field are really badly strung out, even before they set off.

Now some will argue that in, say a three mile chase, those who get left behind at the start have plenty of time to regain the lost ground. That may or may not be the case, it certainly is not the point.

Does it not look amateurish, indeed just plain incompetent, that in an event where the result can be decided by a matter of a single pixel in a photo finish, runners are allowed to set off with a 10, even 20, length advantage?    

Like the issue of dealing with injured horses there is no easy solution. Starting stalls are clearly a no brainer for national hunt racing.

So what is the answer?

How about - at courses where runners circle on the track itself, why can’t a tape be stretched across the track a specified distance behind the starting tape, just as they do behind the stalls in flat races. Whilst not completely eliminating staggered starts it should certainly reduce some of the extreme cases.

For courses that use collecting areas, ensure the exit from the collecting area is within a maximum distance from the starting tapes and, again, have a tape to ensure runners cannot go too far back on the track itself.

I accept the latter suggestion may require courses to make some configuration changes, or even some minor tinkering to race distances but I would have thought it achievable with some thought and discussion. What price credibility?   

 

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