Cheltenham deaths review prompts safety changes in racing

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Cheltenham deaths review prompts safety changes in racing
The Cheltenham Festival in March is jump racing’s showpiece event

A review into the deaths of horses at jump racing’s Cheltenham Festival has warned that welfare issues threaten the future of the sport if not addressed.

It has emerged a seventh horse, Melrose Boy, was put down as a result of an injury sustained in the March fixture.

Significant plans aimed at improving safety have been announced after details of the review were published on Wednesday.

“Six deaths are simply unacceptable,” said the British Horseracing Authority.

Extra veterinary checks, alterations to some race conditions and a major project to study faller rates are among 17 recommendations.

In what could be a watershed moment for the sport, BHA chief executive Nick Rust called on all parties to address the issue of horse welfare.

“It’s an important day for racing. We want to leave no stone unturned,” he said.

“Unless we stay well ahead on this issue, it could be a threat to our sport.

“British racing must work together to reduce the risk of injuries occurring at the Festival and indeed jump racing as a whole.”

Ian Renton, who runs Cheltenham racecourse, said competitors’ welfare was their “number one priority”.

“We would like to thank the BHA for completing the review and will act in accordance with their recommendations as they apply to Cheltenham,” he said.

“As part of staging world-class jump racing, we are committed to delivering the very highest welfare standards.”

Safety has once again been in the spotlight following the deaths of four racehorses at a meeting at Musselburgh in Scotland.

In October, MPs debated racing welfare after more than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling on the government to set up a new equine welfare regulator independent of the BHA.

Changes have improved safety at big races in the past, with no horse suffering a fatal injury in the Grand National since alterations were introduced in 2012.

The four-day Cheltenham Festival in March is jump racing’s showpiece event with total crowds topping 200,00 watching iconic contests such as the Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup.

But six horses died at the 2018 meeting, including three in the concluding Grand Annual Chase.

Welfare campaigners have called for more action to tackle the issue of racehorse fatalities.

Four horses died at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival and seven the previous year.

Fatality rates in racing have fallen over the last 20 years because of safety improvements – to 0.4% in jump racing and closer to 0.1% in flat racing.

In a 67-page report released on Wednesday, the BHA outlined its recommendations following an extensive review of the Festival.

The BHA also plans to introduce a ‘welfare board’ with an independent leader.

Key proposals include:

  • Enhanced veterinary checks on all runners and targeted alterations to race conditions at the Cheltenham Festival
  • A major project to build ‘a predictive risk model’ for racing as a whole to assist with future reform
  • Monitoring jockeys and trainers who have a higher than average number of falls
  • Reducing the maximum number of runners in the Grand Annual Chase from 24 to 20
  • Changing conditions of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle to encourage the use of more experienced jockeys rather than riders who can claim a weight allowance

World Horse Welfare said it welcomed the review and called the recommendations an “important step forward”, but added: “this is just the start of the journey to address the unacceptable level of racehorse attrition.”

“Racing needs to address these issues and be accountable if society is to continue to give them a social license to operate,” the charity added.

Analysis

BBC horse racing correspondent Cornelius Lysaght

What was striking about all this was the tone; the authority’s chief executive Nick Rust sounded almost Churchillian as he spoke passionately about “keeping the ball at racing’s feet”.

Basically he was seeking to shed any thoughts that the sport airily dismisses opponents as ‘not understanding us’ and – to badly mix metaphors – get in the ‘driving seat’ on welfare issues.

But let’s be honest – this is an inherently dangerous sport from which risk can’t be entirely eradicated but the authority believes, when implemented, these recommendations will make a noticeable difference at jumping’s showpiece festival.

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