The BHA’s review of last season’s Cheltenham Festival, which was overseen by Brant Dunshea, its director of integrity and regulatory operations, was published on Wednesday afternoon and can be read in full here. It makes 17 recommendations in all and most fall into the category of reasonable, well-considered proposals, which attempt to reduce the number of fatal injuries to horses both at the Festival meeting and throughout jumps racing as a whole.
The decision to extend pre-race veterinary examinations to include all runners at the Festival is logical and sensible, and so too the move to support and trial the use of padded hurdles and visual aids for horses to ensure that they see fences as clearly as possible.
A “major research project” to identify risk factors throughout jump racing as a whole could also yield valuable insights, including a chance to finally analyse faller rates at fences according to the number of horses that actually jump them, rather than as a percentage of fallers. Horses can only fall once, after all, but digging down of this kind is something that Dunshea said on Wednesday has so far proved impossible given the time and resources available. The detailed data which will now be collected on faller rates for individual trainers and jockeys could also be instructive if it is handled sensitively and not turned into a finger-pointing exercise.
The decision to cut the safety limit from 24 to 20 for two-mile chases, which includes the Grand Annual Chase in which three horses were killed in March, may be a little more contentious, as it will deny four owners a chance to see their horses run at the Festival. But if the BHA is accused of a knee-jerk reaction to one race, it can at least point to some hard data – it’s the graph on page 46 – to back up its decision.
These are the kind of things, in other words, that a sensible regulator would be expected to do in response to a sudden spike in the number of horses killed at its showpiece event. In all, seven horses died as a result of injuries sustained during year’s Festival, which is likely to represent around 4% of the total number of deaths at racecourses in 2018, flat and jumps. The BHA needed to respond, and be seen to respond.
My only concern is that, ultimately, it will make little difference. In his introduction to the review, Dunshea describes six deaths during the meeting (another runner was put down as a result of injuries a few days later) as “simply unacceptable”, a phrase that was later repeated by Nick Rust, the BHA’s chief executive.
The problem for racing here is that there is already a chasm between the public perception of the dangers in the sport and the actuality, and it as a gap which may become ever more difficult to bridge. If you stopped 100 people in the street and asked them to guess how many of the 91,360 starts in 2017 led to a fatal injury, how many would even get close to the actual figure of 167? And how many would be out by a factor of 10?
Fatal injuries are already extremely rare, not least as a result of the regulator’s efforts over the last 20 years which has seen the number of starts which lead to a fatal injury drop from 0.3% to just below 0.2%. Attempts to reduce the number still further, while right and necessary, inevitably increases the proportion of the total that are inevitable, random events, about which absolutely nothing can be done.
And these will not be distributed evenly throughout the year. There will be clusters, and sooner or later, there will be another cluster at the Cheltenham Festival – which is one of the limited number of race meetings which receives mainstream media attention. So what then? Another review? More tweaks? And when does the tweaking start to undermine the qualities that make the Festival, and jumping as a whole, so popular in the first place?
Three of today’s four meetings are over the sticks and Roll The Dough (2.10) is interesting at around 6-1 on the card at Taunton as he goes for his fourth win in six starts. His solid third at Kempton last time came in a slightly higher grade and Sean Houlihan, who won on him at Newton Abbot in September, takes off a useful 5lb.
Aslyo (4.45) and Gwalia (1.35) are two more at a decent price that should go well on the same card, while Bomber’s Moon can underline his recent improvement in the handicap hurdle at Warwick. Rosina (7.15), meanwhile, is a very fair price at around 13-2 on the Flat card at Chelmsford City. She was a winner off a 4lb higher mark back in January and the likely strong pace should suit her running style.