Sunday, 10 April 2011

A rather serious argument for a Sunday

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:



  1. Ah, the Twitter mob in full cry, a truly ghastly thing. I expect quite a few of the mob have no qualms being the battery hens or pork from the pig equivalent. Probably never set foot in a stable either. I hate it when there are deaths at the races , who wouldn't, but even me the world's lousiest horsewoman can see that the horses love it. I had no idea a rider was seriously injured which just shows how skewed the coverage was.

  2. This was so interesting. My father's family are also racing people and I've seen the love and respect they give their horses - whether they win or lose.

    I can't help thinking Twitter is the perfect vechicle for those who just enjoy venting.

  3. Well said Tania! Agree with Betty that virtually nothing was said about the injured jockey.
    I have horses all my life and there is no way you can make them do something they don't want to do.
    They love racing/jumping/hunting whatever - perhaps those who go to meets such as Aintree should just look at the horses who fall or unseat their rider; they up and running in a flash and jumping those big jumps. If they didn't enjoy it, they would run out.
    Sports of any kind are dangerous, the National is reknown for it but no trainer or jockey will put a horse through something he is not capable of handling.

  4. Excellent post Tania, I completely agree with your arguments, NO ONE wants to see horses suffer. I feel extremely sad for all concerned directly with Ornais and Dooneys Gate and I hope that the young jockey Peter Toole recovers.

  5. Well, I'm not sure about this. Twitter and the Daily Mail make good opponents for your post because they're illogical and sensationalist, but I believe there's more to the arguments than you allow. Set the stupid or easily-dismissed aside, and we're still left with an uncomfortable situation. Yes, of course, racehorses love to race - that's what they're bred for. (Which is also true, although as an unintentional result of breeding, of domestic cat behaviour - they stalk and kill birds they don't necessarily want to eat because that bit of their DNA remains from wild cat days: I mention this only because you did.)

    But I think you make an illogical point: if horses can die horribly in one group of human-invented activities, you suggest, and if people object to that, then all horse-related activities must logically be banned. There's a big gap between something like the Grand National (which is probably the only race many people watch) and a sweeping statement like "if you want no horse to die or suffer ever again" - not a fair conclusion, Tania.

    Every time a horse dies in a jump race, and especially in the GN which has a notoriously difficult course, it's going to upset watchers - both those who don't know anything about horse racing, and - as you also point out - those who do. The Guardian, which you may not read, actually has a very good page about all this today including good comment from their racing correspondent, and good coverage of the jockey in hospital as well. It also points out that Ballabriggs who had to be given oxygen and hosed down after the race. I quote one sentence: "Three of the four horses to finish were too exhausted to enter the winner's enclosure..."

    Here's the thing: if a horse race like the GN is a great British sporting spectacle, which is how the organisers position it, it's going to have to be safer - for horses and jockeys - than it is. And if it is not, then every time a horse dies or a jockey is injured, there will be public protest, both intemperate and more measured, but both lead to consequences the GN organisers may not desire. And I don't think that ought to surprise anyone.

    I love horse racing. But I know - as you point out - that gallant, beautiful horses will indeed do what they are bred and trained to do - attempt the impossible - and some of them will die or be injured doing that. And as long as the impossible remains the target, that doesn't seem right.

  6. This was a great post, and particularly thought provoking as I don't know entirely how I feel about the race.

    It may sound a silly question, but is the Grand National much more dangerous than other races? It's obviously the one that gets the coverage. Peter Toole wasn't injured in this actual race, otherwise I imagine it would have had more coverage itself, which in itself is odd. And the three horses that I believe died the day before the Grand National - I have to say I don't know any of their names offhand.

    Is there an argument for phasing out racing over jumps? I did see some of the loose horses bypassing the jumps of the Grand National, which made me wonder if a racehorse has the hunger for jumping that they clearly do for the race.

    A phrase from your post on Saturday describing the jumps in the Grand National - "crazy fences which most horses never see the like of in their lives" - stuck with me. I get shivers down my spine and tears in my eyes watching racing, but I wonder if you took away these crazy fences but keep racing, whether that would be such a bad thing?

    That is a genuine question, incidentally - and for the record I watched the race, lost a tenner on Silver By Nature and have disposed of more rat corpses that my beloved cat has brought in than I care to think about! But I don't eat battery hens. :)

  7. So sorry - three horses didn't die the day before. I had been reading a story about last year's Aintree.

  8. Arguments about the morality or ethics of an event or sequence of events are very difficult to keep on track. When a person feels herself subject to a moral criticism, she often wants to change the conversation from a specific example to one about morality in general and the possible lapses in the moral fibre of the persons who first introduced the argument. We see this often -- say a woman is picketing an animal research lab, saying animals should not be subject to this treatment. Someone of an opposing viewpoint is likely to say,"Gotcha! You're wearing leather shoes, you hypocrite." Suddenly, the conversation has veered from animals in research to the possible moral inconsistencies of an individual.

    I am not a Twitter person, so have no idea what was being twitted, but I doubt that anyone suggested that your dear old dad is, in fact, a beast. And you, Tania, dismissed that suggestion. Yet you go on to ask how many people who shout about animal cruelty keep cats, who roam about killing birds.

    There is a distinction between the actions of humans, which occasionally have some relationship to thought, and the actions of cats or dogs who are responding to evolutionary dictates. One way humans can thoughtfully subvert evolutionary dictates is by keeping cats indoors.

    Your remark about vegan Buddhists startled me for a moment, because I unexpectedly thought I was being directly addressed. In fact you were making a general point that I momentarily took personally. This struck me as an illustration of the difficulty we all have in teasing out defence of our identities from our responses to moral/ethical arguments.

    Surely we can disagree without ad hominem responses. Or maybe not.

  9. Really interesting and stimulating comments; thank you so much. I'm afraid I have revisited the subject on today's blog by way of reply. Forgive me.

  10. Lillyanne, may I doff my imaginary cap to you, for saying with such perfect and reasoned precision exactly what I was attempting to sort out in my own head.
    Yes there are those who will go raving off on a crusade and unfortunately they will often lose sympathy for the very thing they are baying to defend. I'm not one of them - but I will always want to offer a voice for the animals.
    Tania - in your defence of the Grand National I thought I heard an echo of the same type of argument I put forward for fox-hunting - and before anyone points it out - yes I do see the hypocrisy there. I claim I want to defend the animals and yet I can chase foxes. Well - I don't actually believe humans have rid themselves of the hunter in their souls and I'm not even sure we should, since that's the way God made us.
    I'm not opposed to racing per se - or even to national hunt racing. But I am opposed to races which have too many horses, ask them to jump too many monster fences and bring them home too knackered to even enjoy their moment of triumph. Sort that out Grand National and make the race a pleasure for ALL of us to watch and not a downright torture.
    PS - Like many other animal-lovers I was deeply saddened by Peter Toole's accident - please don't assume we can't feel for our fellow humans as well!


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