Four days after it emerged that Paul and Clare Rooney, who have one of the largest strings of jumping horses in the UK, have instructed their trainers to boycott Cheltenham until further notice, both the track and the wider racing public are still waiting for further details about the “safety concerns” that apparently prompted the owners’ decision.
All that is clear thus far is that the Rooneys feel that their runners face an increased risk of injury when racing at Cheltenham, and believe that they have statistical evidence to back them up. Paul Rooney seemed to suggest earlier this week that their data will be published in due course, but as yet, the actual numbers have yet to see the light of day.
Cheltenham, meanwhile, keeps its own detailed records on injuries to runners but these are logged by trainer and jockey rather than the horse’s owner and for now at least, the track will wait to hear what, if anything, the Rooneys want to add before digging out any data of its own.
A trawl through the form book from the start of the 2014-15 season, though, shows that in that time, the Rooneys have had 44 runners at Cheltenham, two of which – Starchitect and Melrose Boy – suffered a fatal injury. Five more of their runners at the course since May 2014 have not raced subsequently, but that does not necessarily mean that the horses concerned suffered a career-ending injury at the course.
On the face of it, two fatal injuries to horses from just 44 starts, almost 5%, is far more than any owner should expect to bear, given that the overall rate of fatalities in British racing is around 0.2% of runners (though this figure includes both Flat and National Hunt racing, with jumping accounting for between 2.5 to 3 times as many fatal injuries).
Yet there is, of course, no in-between when it comes to a fatal injury, and it should also be borne in mind that neither Starchitect nor Melrose Boy died as the result of a fall.
Starchitect was leading a race between the final two fences when he broke down, which is the sort of incident that, while extremely rare, could happen anywhere. Melrose Boy, meanwhile, was struck into during the Martin Pipe Conditionals’ Handicap Hurdle and put down a few days later. Handicaps at the Festival generally attract maximum fields – there were 23 in Melrose Boy’s race – which must slightly increase the chance that one horse will kick another mid-race, but this is a potential reason for avoiding Festival handicaps rather than a complete, indefinite boycott of the track.
Ultimately, a sample of just 44 horses – or even 244, for that matter – seems far too small a sample from which to draw a firm conclusion on whether there is a significantly higher risk of injury to runners at Cheltenham, or that the Rooneys have just been very, very unfortunate over the last few seasons.
A little more certainty should be possible at some stage in the future, as the launch of “a major research project to develop a predictive model for identifying risk factors for all jump racing” was among the 17 recommendations in the British Horseracing Authority’s recent review of last year’s Festival.
For now, it remains possible – indeed, quite likely – that the risk of fatal injury for runners at Cheltenham in general, and at the Festival above all, is slightly higher than it is at many other tracks. The Festival is the most important meeting of the season by far and everything is travelling a little bit quicker and trying a little bit harder from the off.
However, any increased risk – if it exists at all – can only be marginal when set against the much more significant increase that arises from asking horses to jump at least eight obstacles in the first place, as opposed to racing on the Flat. And perhaps, in the end, this is the Rooneys’ direction of travel, as their dark blue and yellow colours have been seen more frequently on the level in recent seasons, most notably aboard My Dream Boat, the winner of the Group One Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2016.
Paul and Clare Rooney have sunk millions into racing under both codes in recent seasons and had runners from nearly 20 different jumping stables last season. They have an absolute right to pick and choose where and when their horses run and have suffered, by any measure, some terrible luck at Cheltenham recently.
Few would blame them for deciding to boycott the track for no other reason than painful memories and superstition. The apparent link to safety concerns, though, is an implied criticism of Cheltenham’s welfare standards and professionalism, and appears to be based on very meagre evidence.
Friday’s best bets
There is a sense that the January weather is slowly closing in ahead of a possible spell of very cold weather next week, but Lingfield’s jumps card survived an 8am inspection on Friday morning and there is a full programme of four meetings as a result.
Hint Of Grey (1.30) and Bonza Girl (3.05) should both go well at the Surrey course while Abbreviate (1.45) has an obvious chance on the jumps card at Wetherby.
The two most valuable meetings are on the all-weather, however, with Family Fortunes (3.50) making plenty of appeal at around 7-2 at Kempton Park. Michael Madgwick’s gelding remains in good form having won over course and distance in November, while Freedom And Wheat (6.45), a winner on his final start at twoÂ last time out, should start his three-year-old career in similar vein.