Skip to main content

Cheltenham Festival: Risks To Racehorses

Volume 570: debated on Thursday 21 March 1996

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.23 p.m.

Whether they consider that the number of horses destroyed at the recent Cheltenham Festival was unacceptably high and, if so, whether they will take steps with the racing authorities to reduce the risks.

My Lords, it is a matter of sadness that the recent Cheltenham Festival was marred by the deaths of those horses. However, the safety of horses at individual racecourses is a matter for the responsible racing authorities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, will she agree that there is considerable public anxiety about the fact that 10 horses were destroyed at a three-day race meeting held in the name of sport? Is it not now time for the Government to set up the appropriate form of joint consultation with the racing authorities so that the continuing national scandal of equine slaughter may be seriously examined?

My Lords, it was not a three-day but a four-day event. It is a wholly exceptional occasion when 10 horses die in one event. It is fair to say that it is not just the public who are distressed by the fact. The owners, trainers and riders of the horses are too, as well as the Jockey Club, the officials of the course and everyone else connected with racing. Bernard Donigan of the RSPCA said:

"Together with the Jockey Club, we have made great advances. We have left nothing to chance. Cheltenham race-course has done everything possible and you cannot criticise them. Everyone there did all they could".
It is a matter for them and it would be quite wrong for the Government to intervene in the process in a knee-jerk reaction.

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that horse-racing, especially jump racing, is a high risk sport both for horse and rider, but it employs thousands of people and gives pleasure to millions? It is inevitable that accidents will happen and it is unfortunate that so many should occur at one meeting. Will the Minister further agree that when a horse fractures its leg or otherwise damages itself so that it is no longer able to walk, the most humane thing to do is to have it destroyed as quickly as possible?

My Lords, it is a sad occasion, particularly when as many as 10 horses are involved, but it is a wholly exceptional occurrence. It is also true that almost no sport is without risk. There is always risk and many horses ridden not for sport but for pleasure die in the field as a result of broken legs or, even worse, broken necks.

The Jockey Club takes its work seriously and the officials of the course take their work seriously. It is our view that everyone concerned is highly responsible and they do all they can to minimise such occurrences. I again quote Bernard Donigan who said:
"To lose one horse, never mind 10, is a source of great concern to us. But in racing there will never be a situation where there will be no casualties".

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I happened to be in Cheltenham last week and saw this unprecedented number of fatalities? Nearly half of them were on the flat, between jumps, so it is bewildering. I have sympathy for those who are worried. Will the Minister agree that the probable explanation is the unusual combination of the exceptional speed and competitiveness of this great festival, together with perhaps a lack of preparation of some horses whose training was hindered in the bad winter?

In order that we may know the facts, will the Minister press for general publication of the report of the inquiry which the racing authorities set up, I may say with commendable speed? Although in top jump racing it is inevitable that there will be great danger for jockeys as well as horses, no one who loves racing would like to see a repetition of fatalities on that scale.

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, an inquiry has been set up by the Jockey Club and the officials of the racecourse. We understand that anyone will be free to give evidence to it, including welfare organisations. The inquiry will report to the board of Cheltenham Racecourse. I simply do not know the answer, so I cannot say whether the report will be made public, but I will take the point away with me. It is in everybody's interest that the inquiry is thorough, and we have every reason to believe that it will be. As to speculation as to what happened, it would be inappropriate to guess. My understanding is that the combination of weather both last summer and during this winter may have been a contributory factor. It is also true that it was a very fast course during those four days. If I may be forgiven the pun, I am told that there was a very serious tailwind, so they were even faster than normal.

My Lords, it is important that the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, is addressed. People do not like seeing horses die. No one likes seeing any animal die. I declare a special interest: for the past seven years I have been head of a world equestrian sporting body, the Three Day Event. Regretfully, in that discipline we have had several fatalities, and I have been involved in addressing them.

Will the Minister agree that the risk in equestrian sports such as racing is very, very considerable? Horses love galloping and jumping. If they did not like it, they would not do it. Can the Minister tell the House how long the inquiry that the Cheltenham authorities have set up will take? It is a very laudable thing to do. When will we have the result?

My Lords, the issue is serious. It is being addressed. There is an inquiry, and the inquiry will take as long as it needs to take in order to come forward with a conclusion. That conclusion will be reported to the board, which has promised it will take action if that is appropriate.