Yet another idea has come to me. It is as yet rather hazy in my imagination, only part-formed. Yet it is worthy of exploration, if only by people better informed about such matters than I shall ever be.
Back in the days of the Sporting Life, and perhaps even during the early years of the Racing Post, I wrote letters expressing my concern about what I considered to be the hidden issue of racehorse welfare. I remember being appalled by the neglect of Hallo Dandy, the horse being found in a poor state of health either on or close by a rubbish dump. Grand National winners, I assumed, were treated like heroes by those privileged to care for them, their every need supplied until their very last day on this Earth. It surprised and upset me to think that neither the late Gordon Richards nor Neale Doughty kept in close contact with the horse, naively believing that one or both would have visited the horse on a regular basis to ensure he was healthy and happy. The only good aspect of Hallo Dandy’s ordeal was that others too were appalled and he became the flag bearer for the first rehabilitation and equine retraining charity and lived into old age.
The Jockey Club’s response to the scandal, as I recall, was on the lines that once a racehorse passes out of the hands of its original owner he or she cannot be held responsible for its welfare. Thankfully there is now a more enlightened outlook at play and horse welfare has become a central theme of the sport, with owners expected to see racehorse ownership as a lifelong commitment to the horses they own. Godolphin and J.P.McManus, in caring for their ex-horses, should be honoured by the sport for the wonderful example they set.
Owners alone should not, though, shoulder all the responsibility; trainers and even jockeys have a moral responsibility to ensure the horses that have made their careers are cared for long into their retirement from the sport. I also believe that once a horse leaves a licensed trainer its name should be registered on a national data base, with people, perhaps employed to do so, held responsible for their well-being.
The idea forming in my head is that as an adjunct to the retraining of racehorses in other disciples of equestrianism, dressage, show-jumping, eventing etc, a competitive activity might be invented that could be staged at racecourses on race days, with prize-money on offer to help defray costs and to encourage owners to keep horses for the purpose.
In my head the aim of the ‘new sport’ would be to compete a course in an optimum time, as in the cross-country phase of a 3-day event, with a mixture of steeplechase fences, hurdles and fixed-jumps to be negotiated, along with parts of the course that must be walked, trotted and cantered, with other disciplines such as gate opening and veterinary inspections, with horses competing at intervals. There would be no necessity to have a horse race-fit, merely healthy.
If this idea, or a development of the idea, is adopted, horses that at the moment leave the environment that has been home for most of their lives could remain with their trainers to be perhaps ridden in this new discipline by stable staff. Though of course all ex-racehorses would be eligible to compete. Given the ages of some of the horses competing in 3-day events this new discipline could prolong a horse’s active lifespan well into their late teenage years or even beyond. It will also keep these horses in the public eye, ensuring far fewer escape the welfare net and end up in as sad a state as Hallo Dandy.
I have had many letters over the years published in both the Sporting Life and Racing Post arguing my point that though punters should be served honourably by the sport it is the horse that must always come first. If the public believe that the horse is merely slave to man’s desire to bet our sport will wither and die. It is why all aspects of horse welfare must be paramount.
It is heartening to learn at last that the powers-that-be are finally waking up to the moral imperative of lifelong care of the horse but they must also ensure that retraining charities are suitably funded so that their vital work can continue long into the future and that the sport itself finds uses for racehorses when they leave the competitive arena and not leave that aspect of the imperative to big-hearted individuals.
To this end there should be many more fund-raising race days in aid of the retraining charities, with even the Grand Nationals linked to raising funds and there should be buckets for donations and information posters in every betting shop and on every racecourse.
When it comes to horse welfare enough can always be bettered.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.