Talking Horses: fatality rate shows worrying Flat and jumps imbalance

Greg Wood and Chris Cook
Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

At first sight, the figures for fatal injuries to horses while racing in 2019, which were published on the British Horseracing Authority’s website on Friday, offer sound reasons for hope that the 2018 figure – the highest for six years – was a blip in the overall trend that has seen the fatality rate in British racing drop by a third over the last 20 years. There were 91,937 starts in 2019, and 173 horses suffered fatal injuries, a rate of 0.19%, or 1.9 per 1,000 starts. The previous year saw 201 fatalities from 93,004 starts, an overall rate of 0.22%.

A closer look, however, is more worrisome, not least with the memory of 2018’s Parliamentary debate on racehorse protection, during which one MP asked “when will the target be zero?”, still quite fresh in the mind. This is because the overall figure includes both Flat and jumps racing, and while it remains extremely low, what was already a marked imbalance between Flat racing and the jumps is, if anything, increasing.

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Just 35 horses suffered fatal injuries while racing on the Flat in 2019, from 60,514 starts, a rate of 0.06% and not far off 1 in every 2,000 starts. Over jumps, it was 138 fatalities from 31,423 starts: 0.44%, or 4.4 per 1,000 starts.

Santa Anita in California, which stages Flat racing on dirt, was the focus of huge attention last year following a sudden spate of fatal injuries in the first three months of the season, but the overall fatality rate at the track has remained fairly constant in recent years at around 0.22%. British Flat racing is at least three times safer by comparison. Our jumping is about twice as dangerous.

Or, to put it another way, a horse racing over jumps in Britain in 2019 was around seven times more likely to suffer a fatal injury than a horse racing on the Flat. This is, at least in part, a reflection of the historically low number of fatal injuries on the Flat last year. It is worth remembering too that extremely rare events can still display significant fluctuations in their frequency. In 2020, the disparity may return to the recent average, where jumping has seen around four or five fatalities for every equine death on the Flat.

But it is not going to go away, and not only does it show that the BHA is correct to remind us, on a regular basis, that “there is always more to be done” but also shows clearly where action is needed. The “rolling” five-year average for fatal injuries over jumps is 0.39%, slightly below the 2019 level, but it has flattened out at that level in recent seasons having dropped steadily from 0.49% since 2004. If the overall fatality rate is to maintain its decline since over the last 20 years, jumping is where progress will need to be made.

It is much easier to point this out, of course, than it is to make it happen. The faller rate, for instance, is already at an all-time low of 2.43%, a 33% drop from 3.61% in 2004. A much-heralded new design of hurdle, produced following extensive research on how horses see obstacles, is due to be introduced within a couple of years and may push the faller rate lower still, but there is only so far it can go.

The Horse Welfare Board, which was set up following a BHA review of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival at which seven horses died, will have a big role to play here. Its “strategy for welfare in racing” is due to be published in “the near future” according to David Sykes, the Authority’s director of equine health and welfare, while a “predictive risk model” for jumping, another result of the 2018 review, remains in development. And if anyone in British jumping is in any doubt about the need to keep moving forward, consider the plight of Santa Anita, with its fatality rate 50% below that of National Hunt. GW

Drop in fatality rate disputed by animal rights body

Animal Aid says that 185 horses died from racecourse injuries in 2019. Normally, AA comes up with a lower figure than the BHA, which is understandable, as the ruling body gets its data direct from racecourse officials, whereas AA has to make use of published information. In 2018, for example, it recorded 196 deaths against the official total of 202.

“There’s something drastically wrong here,” AA’s Dene Stansall told me. “There has to be transparency. The BHA should name the horses represented by their figures, as we do, and the courses involved. We’re really going to take them to task on this”

Asked to explain the difference in figures, a BHA spokesman said: “We record, as we always have, the figure which directly results from catastrophic injuries on a raceday. As I understand it, AA include other types of fatalities which can include off-course and/or ‘elective’ euthanasia which tend to take into account other factors, such as the horse’s long term quality of life.” CC

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