Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The elephant in the room

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Yesterday, when I wrote the post about Cheltenham, there was a huge great lumbering elephant sitting, glowering, in the corner of the room.

It was that three horses died.

I did not know how to tell you that. It was so out of kilter with the anticipation of the day, and the joys of the great feats of heart and endurance. It was, I suppose, a jarring reminder that with joy comes sorrow.
After watching the bold young horse, Sprinter Sacre, bowl round Cheltenham as if he wanted to do nothing else in the world, there was the ghastly sight of seeing the lovely ScotsIrish pull up with a broken hind leg, and have to be destroyed. (Destroyed is a terrible word; I saw one piece where it was described as euthanized, which is the more accurate term. Destroyed though, is the word that the horse people use; the vet puts down the horse with something called a humane destroyer. Despite the ugly word, it is quick and painless.)

In the race where the victory of the tremendous, honest, talented Hunt Ball sent his owner, the farmer Anthony Knott, into transports of delight, so that he was laughing and crying and lost for words, Educated
Evans fell, and had to be put down.

Perhaps saddest of all, the glorious veteran, Garde Champetre, broke a front leg and was also put down. The Older Brother was standing in the middle of the course, right where it happened. He said that Nina Carberry, who has ridden Garde Champetre for the last eight years, and knows and loves the horse like no one else, was so distraught when she jumped off that she was bashing her fist against the rails in despair.

All horses, in any walk of life, suffer risk. They can get cast in their box, just mooching around in the stable at home. They can die in the field. Although jumping carries more risk, the irony was that both ScotsIrish and Garde Champetre suffered their injuries on the flat. There were remarkably few fallers yesterday, but what those two horses show is that all it takes is for an animal to put down wrong when running, and a leg can go. I saw it happen, shockingly, at Ascot this summer, when Rewilding died in a flat race.

Some parts of the media like to whip up a storm and call it rank cruelty. I have a problem with that, because of growing up in a racing household. My father rode and trained racehorses horses for most of his life; he was not a cruel man. So there is a disconnection between the furious descriptions I read, and the life I knew. The Animal Rights people, who would like racing to be banned altogether, have much more consistency on their side, because they are as furious about zoos and cheap chicken and factory farming as they are about racing.

I’m not sure I can make tremendous sense of it. You can argue that there is no walk of life without risk, unless you wrap yourself in cotton wool and never leave the house. I have argued that there is an inconsistency in making an outcry against racing, where a tiny proportion of animals suffer an untimely death, whilst the public generally accept battery chickens, which is wholesale nastiness. This is a rational argument, but does not quite touch the emotive heart of the thing.

I think of the great horses who ran for season after season; Desert Orchid raced for ten years, over all kinds of fences, and died a natural death at the great old age of twenty-seven, after a long and happy retirement.

All the arguments will be waged, with passion and rage. There are good points on both sides; I’m not sure it is an easily clear-cut case from either angle.

What I do know is that for all the brilliance and the beauty and the joy, the shadow of loss swooped over Prestbury Park yesterday. There will have been three yards last night with a dark and empty box. The people who looked after those horses were not ruthless barbarians; they loved their charges, and will feel a terrible grief.

I was with my father, years ago, at Aintree, when he lost a horse. He was a brave fella called Earthstopper, and he died of a heart attack. I saw the inconsolable sorrow in my old dad. He was not a brute, but he knew there is a tough core to the racing life. I never spoke to him about the rights and wrongs. He was not a contemplative man. I think he might have said, with hard simplicity: these things happen. You mourn them, and you go on.

There are people who will think that is not good enough, and they might be right.

I shall watch the racing again today, slightly chastened. The blood will rise again, the thrill will come. I shall look forward to seeing if the exciting novice Grand Crus is as brilliant as I think he might be. The crowds will roar the champions up the hill.

After all the arguments pass, as they always do, we are left with the simple fact of the thing. Three good horses were lost, and the least I can do is mark their passing.

Educated Evans, photograph by the PA:

14 March Educated Evans and Sam Twiston-Davies by PA

Garde Champetre, by David Davies for the PA:

14 March Garde Champetre by David Davies for PA

Nina Carberry, after winning on him at Cheltenham past, photograph by the PA:

14 March Nina Carberrry by PA

ScotsIrish, photograph uncredited:

14 March ScotsIrish

When I sat to write this, I thought of making a case. There is a strong defence to be made for racing; I've done it before. But in some ways, there is no point to that. You are intelligent, thoughtful readers; you know what you believe. This was not the moment for a debating chamber. And it might sound like the thin noise of special pleading.

In the end, I just wanted to say the thing; to tell what happened, to acknowledge the sadness, to make a tiny RIP.


  1. I think what is destroyed is the potential. I know your heart is sore over this.

  2. You love them, you treat them with kindness and fairness, you mourn them and you go on. That more or less sums up my philosophy concerning both animals and people. But yes, racing is like life - great hopes, huge disappointments, success once in a while, joy. Cruelty on the other hand must never be tolerated.

  3. Thank you for addressing this. Once again, you express my feelings so well. Losing Garde Champetre yesterday was particularly hard. That is the aspect of racing, both on the flat and over fences, that can never be reconciled. When the greatest care is taken of the horses, and they are not on pain-killers that mask infirmity, I try to make myself just accept it. After all, animals in pastures tear around and break legs regularly; no one says anything then. But it is never, ever easy, and it is always, always sad. As niinpa niin says, racing is like life.


  4. I'm glad you wrote this post.

  5. I am an equinely-ineducated nincampoop, so have never entirley understood why the breaking of a leg (just one limb out of four, after all) almost always leads to the horse being summarily dispatched. Is it because horses spend virtually all their lives standing up (awake, resting or asleep) so cannot keep the weight off a break while it mends? Obviously they will never race again, but is no sort of life possible, pensioned off?

    So sorry if all I am displaying is woeful ignorance, but I do aim to understand, and would not presume to condemn those in the racing world who have to live with this dire risk every day with every animal they train and run.

  6. Horses and eels are not the same thing but the other day while watching BBC the warning, live animals is killed for food in this program, parental guidance is advised. Me and my son thought the warning was very silly and very english. Animals are killed for food every day that is not the same as animal cruelty. Putting a lobster into a freezer before boiling and calling it humane (as we were by a relative at X-mas) also very silly. THere is too much belief that animals are like Sylvanian Families, they are not.
    It is obvious to me, though not a horse-person (find them very big) that one could not race and train these animals unless one treated them right. They are much bigger than we and unless they enjoy themselves they would not run and jump.
    Also, my dog believes she is in charge of our family. So she must have been playing with dolls as a puppy.

  7. Losing a friend (2 or 4 legged) always hurts. And any life, taken for food, should be taken quickly and with the minimum of suffering.

    And yes to GoldenOldenLady, it's because the legs are weightbearing all the time. I know that a broken leg can be mended, but the length of time is long, and the care and associated costs are horrendous. Plus that leg remains vulnerable. To me it's the same as a dog with osteosarcoma. It's fatal, there is no cure, just ensure that the dog goes quickly, with love and doesn't have to live in pain (osteo is essentially an exploding bone).

    The Erika-in-Australia

    1. Of course animals in the food chain should be treated well while alive and also killed swiftly. Sometimes I feel people get more up in arms and angry about the care of animals than of children. I am not following the debate in the press regarding the race (since not living in England) but I am pretty sure there are some strong forces against horse-racing. Horses are beautiful, large, smart animals and for me hard to believe they would train and participate in races without enjoying it.


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