Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I wasn’t going to do this, but I think I have to. It’s a sunny Sunday, and I should just give you some pretty pictures of blossom and the recipe for the lovely new beetroot salad which I just invented. But this has been weighing on my mind all morning, so I’m afraid you get instead a thousand words on the morality of racing. What you poor readers have to put up with.
Some of this I mentioned briefly yesterday. For some reason, I felt a pressing need to get the whole argument clear in my mind. Here it is:
I felt incredibly sad yesterday. It was a disproportionate sorrow, and I could not shake it off. The three glorious days of Aintree had been so glittering and marvellous. There had been thrilling, champion performances from Master Minded and Big Buck’s, and it all led up to the big event of the National itself. Then the bird of death swooped down, casting a shadow over the sun.
After Ornais and Dooneys Gate died in the Grand National, both killed in crashing falls, there was a pall spread over a great day. Then, there was a sudden outcry on Twitter. The comments had an odd savagery about them. They were along the lines of: dead horses, but people made money, happy now? It was more an intemperate rage at the horrible racing plutocrats, who literally run their horses to death, rather than sorrow for the animals themselves. The Mail on Sunday ran a sensationalist article; people were quoted calling for the National to be banned,describing it as 'ritual animal cruelty'.
I started to wonder. Perhaps they were right. I have lived with racing all my life; my father was a jockey and then a trainer. It is what I grew up with. But the furious critics were so sure of their arguments. Perhaps I had been lost in a festival of savagery all along. Perhaps my dear old dad is, in fact, a beast.
It took me a while to come back to some kind of perspective. Here is the awful, raw truth. Horses die. Even tough, cross little ponies are curiously delicate. They die on the roads and in the field. They can get cast in their box and break a leg. They die of laminitis, from the apparently benign activity of eating grass; they get colic and Monday morning disease. If you want no horse to die or suffer ever again, then there must not only be no more racing, there must be no more horses. No more dressage or show jumping or three day eventing or gymkhanas or riding for the disabled; no more pony trekking or polo or cantering over the downs on a sunny day.
The argument goes that racing is particularly cruel and unnatural because horses are forced to run at high speeds over huge, treacherous fences. First of all, there is no forcing. No ten stone human has ever been able to force a half ton horse, hot with oats and breeding, to do anything it does not want to do. Anyone who watched the racing over the last three days saw that there was a bolshie creature that stood stock still at the start on Friday, deciding that he simply did not want to race that day. He was taken back to his stable.
Horses that are not happy in races are pulled up. If a horse is not eating up at home or not himself or showing any signs of distress, he will be rested. The really top class horses, who used, in the old days, to be run often, sometimes in handicaps where they had to give away lumps of weight, are now only run three or four times a year. The chasers and hurdlers who work so hard during the winter are given a long summer holiday, idling away the days in the field, with the sun on their backs.
That they love it and are bred for it is not a good enough argument, according to the sages on Twitter. The fact is, no one consults the horses, so they cannot make a moral choice, and then they die. But the loving it argument must carry some weight. Anyone who has ever worked with horses will tell you of the excitement on race days. Some horses are so sensitive to routine that they know when they are to run, and turn from dopey old dolts in the box to fiery competitors, before they are anywhere near the racecourse.
The great Desert Orchid loved racing so much that he often used to run away with his jockey on the way to the start; there is wonderful old footage of poor Colin Brown getting carted down the track, desperately trying to pull up, the Orchid was so eager to get going. Years after he retired, when he was a very old gentleman indeed, he would be brought back to Cheltenham or Kempton to take place in a parade. He would throw his head up in the air, and start dancing down the turf like a three year old, his great age forgotten, because he quite clearly remembered that this was the place where he had all his joy. Yet he risked death every time he set foot on the course. He was a very wild jumper in his novice years, and suffered many crashing falls, one of which laid him out on the grass for ten minutes, so that his owner and trainer did indeed fear he had killed himself.
The argument from cruelty has other flaws. Racehorses have good lives. They are kept in warm boxes lined with straw, mucked out every morning, fed like princes. When they do their work, they do it on the wide open spaces of Lambourn and Newmarket, with the wind in their manes. There are tragic stories about broken-down horses being found starved in sheds, but they are rare. Mostly, jumpers are pensioned off with their grateful owners, put out to grass, or used as riding horses.
The more egregious implication in the cruelty argument is that of intent. On Saturday night, Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins will have gone home to the awful gaping space of an empty box. I know, from experience in a racing yard, where we too lost horses, what that feels like. The whole stable, particularly the people who looked after the horses, will have been devastated; the owners left bereft; the jockeys heartbroken. Are the vengeful furies on Twitter really saying that these are cruel men and women, who intentionally send their horses to their deaths, and don’t care? All the people connected with those two horses are not only having the pain of sudden loss to deal with, but are being told that what they do is brutal, unconscionable, and hideous. They are essentially being told that they are bad people. There can be no pity for them.
Meanwhile, a promising young jockey called Peter Toole, lies on life support in hospital, after a fall at the meeting. There was not the same savage outcry in the media for him. Presumably this is because he is one of the brutes who takes part in this ghastly spectacle.
Racing is tough, and dangerous. It is a sport of risk and speed and courage, of tragedy and triumph. It carries dangers for animals and humans both. It also contains a lot of joy, and love. The same cannot be said of, say, battery farming. But chickens are not as pretty as horses, and do not appear on television, so there is no Twitter petition for them. I wonder how many of the people who shout about animal cruelty keep cats? Do they have no place in their fierce hearts for the million birds a year who are killed by felines? Or do the songbirds not count?
It’s a tough, moral argument. There is a case that humans have no right to keep animals in the first place, imposing human agency on them, taking them out of their natural habitat. Run that to its logical conclusion, and there would be no more thoroughbreds at all. But I can only take the cruelty argument seriously from a Buddhist vegan who has never kept a cat.
Oh, I am glad that I got that off my chest. Thank you so much. And PS: I know that some of my most faithful readers are cat-lovers. I'm not having a go at felines, but at hypocrisy. I am a bit of a red in tooth and claw person, when it comes to animals. My own regal ladyships used to love nothing more than killing small rodents when they were younger and racier. I felt that was a food chain thing. I could not get exercised over the death of a mouse, when the dogs were simply following their natural inclinations. I do, however, refuse to eat battery chickens, because there is nothing natural about that.
Really am stopping now. And I DO have some pretty pictures of blossom for you, as a reward for ploughing through far too many words.
The last of the viburnum. It flowered bravely all winter, cheering me up in the dark, cold days. Now this is the very final blossom:
And it is all going to leaf:
The first of the blossom:
The limes are starting to put out acid-green leaves:
The daffs are finally in their pomp:
The Duchess feels she must investigate thoroughly:
While the Pigeon has a little lie-down:
Then there is the sunbathing:
The hill, quite lovely in the dazzle: