Lilbitluso lost his life at Aintree this week after a catastrophic fall during the Randox Health Foxhunters’ Chase. Although tragic – and entirely preventable – the horse’s death comes as no surprise. After all, this is the Grand National Festival, where broken necks, severed tendons and heart attacks are part and parcel of the sport.
The Grand National is designed to be long, punishing and hazardous for horses. It’s the risk factor that makes it so infamous. Forty horses are forced to run at breakneck speeds of up to 35 miles per hour while competing for space on a four-mile course of obstacles, jumps – including Becher’s Brook, aptly nicknamed the “killer fence” – and dangerous terrain. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Some slam face-first into the ground, while others collide into one another. Since 2000, 49 horses – and counting – have died at the Aintree meeting, and yet the races continue.
Today, it looked as if Becher’s had claimed victim number 50. I Just Know fell on the first circuit and the sickening sight of the green screens being brought out had viewers fearing the worst. The screens were still up when the field came round for the second time, and a flag-waving marshal signalled jockeys to ride around the fence rather than over it. Thankfully, I Just Know was give the all-clear, while a second runner, Saint Are, was taken for further veterinary assessment in the racecourse stables.
As if the course itself wasn’t challenging enough, the horses are physically ill suited to it. Bred for speed, horses used for racing weigh around 70 stone but have lanky legs that are supported by ankles the size of humans, making them particularly susceptible to breaking. As eminent veterinarian Emma Milne said: “The bitter paradox of racing is that the breeding of horses for speed directly undermines their ability to cope with jumps. For what a racehorse owner wants is a thin, light creature [who] can move as fast as possible – exactly the type of horse most likely to be vulnerable when forced over jumps of more than five feet high.”
In an attempt to silence the ever-growing outrage and disgust over the carnage, race organisers have added some plastic fencing and lowered a few of the obstacles. But these token gestures don’t go nearly far enough towards ensuring horses’ safety. And while the industry pays lip service to animal welfare, it has yet to remove the requirement that jockeys carry a whip, which they can and do use to make horses run to and beyond breaking point. If we saw someone whipping a dog in the street, we’d try to stop it. We’d call the police. We’d demand that the perpetrator be taken to court – possibly to prison. We’d most certainly call it animal abuse. And the same should apply on the racecourse.
It’s not just the cruelty of the races that horses must endure – most who survive their racing days have a grim “retirement” in store. Once they’re no longer winning, many are discarded like used betting slips. Some receive a bullet to the head, while others are dumped at animal sanctuaries that are already bursting at the seams with ex-racers. Others are destined for the abattoir. Campaign group Animal Aid estimates that around 1,000 horses from the racing industry are killed in Britain every year and turned into dog food or cheap meat.
2017 Grand National in pictures
Horses don’t care about crossing the finishing line first. They don’t care about trophies or prize money. Those are human pursuits. If you enjoy watching racing, that’s great – go for it. Tune in to Formula 1, the 100m sprint, or any of the countless other sports that only involve willing human participants. But please, let’s leave animals out of it. A day out and the chance of winning a few quid is never worth more than a horse’s life. It’s time we started acting like the nation of animal lovers we claim to be, took off our blinkers to the inherent cruelty of the Grand National and all other horse races, and put these events out to pasture.
Elisa Allen is director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) UK