Category Archives: 2011 post-Grand National debate

Whip – a hotch-potch but the BHA had to act

Despite the emphasis on public opinion in today’s  BHA Review of whip use, racing would be a modern-day Canute in trying to turn the tide of public perception. Figures in today’s report showing how popular racing is (where did the 1 billion Global TV viewers a year come from?), fail to reflect reality – racing is way below the radar of  the vast majority of Britons – and it probably always will be.

Quantifying in this survey doesn’t real tell us much. What does ‘not very interested’ mean? They might watch the National and nothing else?

‘Fairly interested’? Maybe watch the National and Royal Ascot? Or perhaps they bet once a week/month – who knows?

The survey, around which much of the decision-making seems to have revolved, has several weaknesses beyond those mentioned above. The first objective mentioned in the Background heading is:

Clearly gauge the full spectrum of views on whether whipping is perceived to be cruel, in particular quantifying the extent to which people’s views differ depending on the situation

It’s impossible to get a full spectrum from a self-selecting group who have pre-registered, are internet savvy, possibly inclined to be opinionated about many things, and are probably notably different demographically from racing’s main funder the betting shop punter (how many of those are registered with YouGov?)

45% of respondents had no interest in racing – perhaps that balance was perceived as being necessary when seeking general public opinion, I don’t know.

I’ve slated the authorities often enough, but if the horror views of the corpses of Dooney’s Gate and Ornais were not sufficient,  when Jason Maguire jumped off an exhausted close-to-collapse winner, his whip still as hot as Ballabriggs, then many others dismounted to help a scurrying non-uniformed posse desperately hurl water on the ‘survivors’ of 4m 4f and 30 big fences in Mediterranean heat – watched by 9 million people – the BHA went 1.01 in my book to be forced into doing something dramatic. To have done nothing would have been the racing equivalent of the Murdochs ignoring the NOTW scandal.

The key for me was that, after the National, racing was close to losing the RSPCA – a terminal outcome if that happened, in my opinion.

We’ve ended up with a hotch-potch, no doubt, but it could never have been anything else. Public opinion, in reality, might mean little to racing, but it sure as hell means a lot to established animal welfare organisations.

The Grand National has changed many lives. The PR disaster that was the 2011 running has changed racing forever.

Maguire – whip should not be banned

Jason Maguire has spoken about the whip debate, claiming his ban after the Grand National was not the catalyst for the current whip review by the BHA.

“I did not go out to hurt Ballabriggs – we’re horsemen and we love horses,” he told the Yorkshire Post.

“I broke the rules and I got suspended for what I did. I accept that. It happened. But how would people have responded if I had not ridden the horse out – and got caught on the line? I would have been accused of not trying.

“There’s a lot of talk that the review has been pre-empted by my National ride. It has not. The National is just one race. We need to look at the whole sport. If you take sticks away, you will have horses refusing or pulling up before the final fence – particularly at a course like Towcester, with an uphill finish.

“Momentum is crucial to getting over an obstacle – and a jockey knows that the horse must come first. Would people be happy if there were races where no horse finished? You also need them for keeping a true course.”

Full article here

Cabinet Minister, sports secretary, Jeremy Hunt now calling for changes to the Grand National

I get the feeling that a concerted and lengthy campaign is steadily building on the welfare front for racing.  I’ll be expanding on these thoughts in another article but here is the latest development;  a significant one in my opinion.

The Northern Echo reports today that  Sports Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the public had been “shocked” by the gruesome sight of the horses – Dooney’s Gate and Ornais – which broke their backs in falls, in the Grand National.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHSA) ordered a review into whether safety should be tightened up at Liverpool’s Aintree Racecourse and will publish its findings in October.

But Mr Hunt appeared to pre-empt that review, when he said: “Racing is the second most popular sport in the country after football, in terms of attendances, It’s incredibly important.

“I think that what happened at the Grand National really shocked a lot of people. Anyone would say that we need to find a better way of making sure that those kind of tragedies don’t happen.”

The comments follow calls for Mr. Hunt’s department to intervene with the BHSA and Anita, to ensure measures are taken to make the famous race less lethal.

One Labour MP compared the treatment of horses in the Grand National to that of elephants in a circus, which were forced to “prance around on their back legs.” Twenty horses have been killed since 2000.

Full article here

Backhand position only for whip most likely outcome of BHA review says David Muir, RSPCA consultant

David Muir, the RSPCA consultant who works closely with racing on behalf of the charity, has been in the news lately.  David very kindly gave me twenty minutes of his time yesterday to record the following interview. 

“Recent media coverage seems to have given the impression that excessive whip use has suddenly become an issue because of the Grand National and Jason Maguire’s suspension.  The fact is the RSPCA and myself have been concerned about incorrect use of the whip in racing for a long time, and I have done a lot of work on the issue with a number of people.

“Although the RSPCA have always taken a pragmatic view on the whip, and indeed on racing, things are now getting out of hand.  Unless something is done about excessive use of the whip, I can see it being banned completely and that is something I don’t want to see.  The whip is needed for safety and discipline in races but how do you quantify encouragement?  That’s the area that needs addressing.

“I’ve read Mark Johnston’s piece where he says that horses need to feel the whip as they tire towards the finish, for their own safety, to keep them running straight in a balanced fashion.  To a degree Mark has a point but what you can’t do is defend the indefensible.  If the application of pain is a necessary ingredient for racing, then I see racing going into an area that’s problematic.

“The whip is a work in progress.  The one used now in racing bears no comparison whatever to the whip used five years ago. If I’d have hit myself hard on the back of the hand with a whip from five years ago, I’d break all four fingers.  I could do it with the current whip and not even leave a mark.

“The current whip has a cylindrical core covered with foam.  As it tapers down to the part which strikes the horse, it flattens out into a foam covered paddle which gives on contact with the horse and the reduction in pain, compared with the old whip, is dramatic.

“Used in the backhand style, the whip is perfectly acceptable, it’s when jockeys change to the forehand there is an implication that they want to apply as much pain as possible, and that’s where I fall out.

“We need to make sure that the correct balance is reached in whip design and in its use by jockeys. Doubling the foam-covering for example would make the whip useless for correction and discipline purposes.  But used in the backhand position, I can never see a point in the future where I, or the RSPCA, would have a problem with the whip and that is the way I think the BHA will go with this.

“The only alternative I can see to that is that the whip is to be carried for safety and correction only, as in the current hands and heels races.

“The whole point of me, and the RSPCA working side by side with racing is to try to help understand both sides of the issues as we work to improve the welfare of horses.  It’s alright standing outside and criticising racing but when you are working with racecourse management and the BHA, as we do, you see the problems they face.

“For example, I’m working closely at the moment on a hurdle design project with students at Southampton University, which is due to finish next month.  For a year we’ve been looking at hurdle design. Along with four graduates, we’ve been examining design to see if we can improve safety in hurdling and reduce fatalities.  I’m not in racing simply to criticise, I’m there to work with those involved to try to improve things”.

On the question of disqualification of a horse if its jockey is found guilty of improper use of the whip, David said:

“The Jockey should be disqualified, not the horse. Disqualifying the horse affects many other people; owners, trainers, punters, the whole system of betting.  Just imagine a jockey who wants to actually lose a race, he knows excessive use will get the horse disqualified”.

I asked David if he was involved in the decision to ask jockeys to dismount immediately after the Grand National.  He said:

“This is another issue that’s been taken completely out of context. I’ve been involved with the National now for fourteen years.  When I first went there I fought like billy-o to get loads of water and I’ve got it now, about a hundred buckets and big tanks full of water with ice-bags in them.

“When the horses come in after four and a half miles, they’re very hot.  Tim Morris (equine science and welfare director for the BHA) gave an instruction this year to jockeys to get off as soon they got in, get the saddles off and get water on the horses to cool them down. It wasn’t just the winner that got the treatment, I must have thrown water over twenty or thirty horses.  It’s a welfare issue and a good thing for racing to do”.

Asked about the image the hurried scrambling with water gave to the public, David said, “I think there was a major PA problem there.  They should have explained what was going on.  It’s a bit like when the screens go up on the course; everybody just assumes it’s a dead horse but that’s not always the case.

“Racing needs to take another step forward in explaining things.  The whip is a classic example.  Most people don’t know about the structure of a whip and how it behaves in use.  We need to be more open and help people understand things much better”.

We touched on the situation in Australia where the RSPCA were instrumental in getting NH racing  banned in all but two states.  David made the point that there’s almost no resemblance to jump racing there and in the UK, in the quality and type of horses used.  He said:

“I can never see a situation where the RSPCA would support a call for the banning of National Hunt racing in Britain. Remember, what we are about is the prevention of cruelty and the definition of cruelty is ‘the gratuitous application of pain for the enjoyment of the person who’s doing it’. Now where in racing does the term ‘cruel’ fit?  Tragic?  Yes. Cruel? I can’t see that. The RSPCA does not try to justify the deaths of racehorses, but we will work tirelessly to reduce them. It’s a high risk sport and the RSPCA’s position in it is to help make it as risk-free as possible”.

On Towcester’s decision to have only ‘hands and heels’ races from October 5th onwards David said, “It’s a brave and positive way forward and I congratulate them on their courage and tenacity in the face of these recent concerns about whip use”.

Grand National ‘cruelty complaints’ from BBC viewers more than 10 times higher than last year

The BBC press office confirmed today that, from a peak audience of 8.8 million, they received 313 complaints about the Grand National, up from just 29 complaints last year.

After the 2011 Grand National, complaints regarding animal cruelty were at their highest in 10 years, mostly directed at the coverage of the horse deaths. The breakdown:

161 about coverage of horse deaths
103 people felt the BBC should not cover GN
8 from viewers unhappy with whip usage

The BBC press office points out that the degree of  general media coverage after the Grand National might have played some part in the increase in the volume of compaints.

Here is the BBC’s response to viewer complaints about the coverage of the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s gate

We have received some complaints from viewers who are unhappy with how we covered the death of two horses during The Grand National on 9 April 2011.

In covering The Grand National, we have to strike a balance between covering the race as well as reflecting incidents that occur on the race track.

We reacted with as much care as possible given the very sad circumstances surrounding the death of the two horses.

We used the wide helicopter camera to cover any distressing scene as this provided the most distant angle available to us. We knew families with young children could be watching the race, so we tried to cover the deaths of the horses with as much sympathy as we could to ensure we minimised the distress this may cause our viewers.

Ultimately, our aim is to bring our audience the most comprehensive coverage of The Grand National; and we acknowledge that, when such sad events happen, it is hard to satisfy everyone with the manner in which they are covered

The breakdown of complaint categories from the BBC figures differs substantially from those reported by Channel 4 and the BHA where the main issue for complainers who contacted those organisations was whip use in the Grand National.  Full article here

The BBC also commented on another article I wrote prior to the Grand National regarding the effect of their coverage on the non-racing public.  Here is that article.

You can follow me on twitter by clicking here


Joe McNally


You bet. They Die. More than a week on from the National, Charlie Brooks reminds us of the dangers of ignorance

It’s a brave racing personality who raises the ghosts of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate when the national media have forgotten them. But I think Charlie Brooks is right to do so here in today’s  Telegraph.

It’s too easy for us to settle back down into daily racing life till Aintree comes along next year with the threat of dropping more Animal Aid parcels to those vehemently opposed to the National.

Other articles in this category  – 2011 post-Grand National debate – on my blog, tell the story of the continued campaigns in Australia to abolish NH racing completely (It’s now legal in only two states). Michael Lynch’s article gives an enlightening picture of the background to that campaign and it’s notable that the RSPCA down under helped get jumps racing stopped in many states.

How much longer the UK arm of that organisation can continue to ‘support’ the Grand National must be questionable. The Animal Aid devotees (their GN ‘merchandise’ includes T-shirts with the motto You bet. They Die), will have taken considerable heart from the public exposure they’ve received this time round.  If they have any nous, the RSPCA will be in their crosshairs.

Charity donations are tough to come by in these days of ‘austerity’; if an anti-RSPCA campaign orchestrated by Animal Aid starts affecting funds, racing had better look out.  Charlie Brooks touches on the whip issue too and the BHA’s position on the current rules will become untenable – it’s a matter of time and a subject for a separate article.

Joe McNally

All National jockeys pre-instructed to dismount at the end; we should have been told beforehand

Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare for the British Horseracing Authority writes to the Liverpool Echo. In his letter (in full, below) he tells readers: ” However, what viewers may not have seen is that due to the unseasonably warm weather, all the jockeys had been told to dismount from their horses as soon as the race was over in order to allow handlers and vets to get water to the horses”.

Had viewers been told beforehand, or the BBC briefed to build it into the coverage as water was being sloshed around everywhere at the end, it would have done two things:

Helped explain to the uninitiated what was happening and why

Given the message that detailed planning had gone into the organisation of the race

A vital PR opportunity missed.

Tim Morris’s letter

ALL those who love racing and horses will have been saddened by the accidents which led to the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate during the Grand National this year.

It was distressing for all of us to watch – those involved in racing care deeply for their horses.

This care and concern is why horseracing has for many years worked closely with legitimate animal welfare charities, such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. However, racing is a sport with risk, and the Grand National is the most testing race in Great Britain. Racing is open and transparent about this risk and works hard to reduce it. 

 TV viewers saw several welfare measures in action at this year’s race. For the first time, two fences were bypassed to minimise the risk of further accidents and run-outs were introduced so that those horses that had lost their riders could run around fences rather than jump them. Viewers will also have seen the winning jockey, Jason Maguire, jump off after the race and his horse, Ballabriggs, cooled with water. However, what viewers may not have seen is that due to the unseasonably warm weather, all the jockeys had been told to dismount from their horses as soon as the race was over in order to allow handlers and vets to get water to the horses

In addition, Mr Maguire was banned for five days for exceeding the strict limits which the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the sport’s regulator in Great Britain, places on the number of time he could use his whip. We will certainly be reviewing our rules to ensure that we have the balance right between appropriate use of the whip and stopping unacceptable use.

 Not everyone supports racing, and Animal Rights activists such as Animal Aid are entitled to their views. The BHA believes that the overwhelming majority of the British public do not subscribe to this view, and want to see racing continue.  We know the public also expects racing to do everything in its power to reduce risk to horses. The BHA is listening and is determined to ensure that this happens. 

Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare, British Horseracing Authority

Read More

Time Magazine namecheck Elizabeth Taylor in their Grand National deaths article

Internationally renowned Time Magazine’s opening paragraph on their Grand National story:
“In the wake of Elizabeth Taylor’s death, many remember her starring role in National Velvet. A young teenager riding to victory in the Grand National Steeplechase provided a fairytale ending for viewers all over the world. But how accurate was that depiction?Any sports competition lends itself to fairytale endings, but as Saturday’s Grand National indicated, the race doles out dangers as well as trophies” 

Full article here

Australian sportswriter Michael Lynch on how the Grand National deaths were seized on by the ‘antis’ down under

The latest of our guest columnists taking part in the Grand National debate is Michael Lynch, a senior sportswriter at Fairfax Media, publishers of The Age, Melbourne, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He has written on a regular basis on Australian racing for 20 years. You can follow Michael on Twitter here

The Grand National victory of Ballabriggs took place in the early hours of Sunday morning, Australian time. But it took only a few hours for the well organised and highly vocal lobby that is seeking to shut down jumps racing completely in this country to invoke the deaths of two horses at Aintree as further evidence for their campaign against steeplechasing and hurdling.

Predictable? Yes, of course.

Australian anti jumps campaigners have already scored a number of what they would regard as ”victories” – although not the ultimate triumph – and will continue relentlessly in their fight to kill off the sport.

In their battle they are aided and abetted by a compliant general news media, particularly television, which knows an emotive and easy story when it sees one.  And what is more emotive than the sight of a gallant horse straining to give its all only to crash to its death on a racecourse?

Rarely does Australian TV – nor most of the general news media  – bother to concern itself overmuch with the detail, to examine all the issues surrounding jumps racing: its social and economic benefit, particularly in rural areas, the idea that it provides a lifeline for older horses deemed too slow on the flat (whose future would otherwise be the knackery) and the fact that it provides employment and a livelihood for a small but dependent sector of the agricultural and equestrian workforce.

The usual method of reportage is a dramatic picture, a few hand wringing paragraphs in which animal advocates, occupying the high moral ground, are quoted extensively, and then a couple of lines from someone in the racing industry who rarely expresses himself as clearly as he might. All topped off with an accusatory headline.

Sounds familiar no doubt. There is one huge difference, however,  between jumps racing Down Under and back in the UK and Ireland, or even in nearby New Zealand.

Its level of popularity with racegoers and the betting public is minuscule compared to the interest and public support it generates in Britain. In Australia hurdling and steeplechasing is conducted only in Victoria and South Australia, with the former being very much the home of the sport. New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and West Australia – other Australian racing jurisdictions – have not had any jumping for decades.

The sport was in its heyday in the sixties, seventies and eighties: older readers, or those with a sense of history, will remember that the great Australian jumper Crisp was sent from Melbourne to be trained by Fred Winter, who sent him out to run that epic in the 1973 National when he led virtually every yard of the way under top weight before being collared in the shadows of the post by the lightly weighted Red Rum.

Red Rum’s subsequent feats suggest that Crisp’s performance that day was probably the greatest ever seen over the fearsome Liverpool fences.

All that seems a world away in Australia now, although it should be remembered that even then in Crisp’s pomp the jumpers were very much a sideshow to the flat racing stars who raced then, as now, Australia wide 12 months of the year with feature race carnivals strung out all over the country: Melbourne in spring and late summer, Sydney in the autumn, Perth in summer, Adelaide in late autumn and Brisbane in the winter.

I have lived here since the late 1980s and in that period the  steeplechasers and hurdlers have raced only through the autumn and winter months (mainly April to August) and then only in the one or two races per card which were programmed for them.

The structure of the Australian industry also works against jumping. In the last 50 years, especially since the inception of the Golden Slipper, the world’s richest two year old race, the emphasis of the domestic breeding industry has very much switched to speed. Even on an eight race flat programme at Flemington during the spring carnival there are unlikely to be more than one, maybe two, races over 1600 metres or further.

As a result Australian gallopers are exceptional sprinter-milers. Silent Witness, the Hong Kong speed machine and world champion sprinter, was foaled in NSW before being sold on to Hong Kong owners.

Black Caviar, currently the world’s highest rated horse, is another extraordinary short course performer who was bred in Victoria by a sire, Bel Esprit, who was a precociously quick two year old himself. She is unbeaten in 12 starts between 1000 and 1200 metres and is yet to be tried over further.

So there are, in the equine population,  fewer stoutly bred horses who stay jumping distances. Consequently there is  a smaller pool of runners and less interest from owners – who all want a quick return on their investment – in buying a horse whose future lies over obstacles.

And don’t even think about the prospect of standing National Hunt stallions and breeding jumpers here: the five or six year wait for a payback is just much too long for Australian owners, many of them in syndicates, who want something that can run quickly, preferably straight away, and earn its keep.

The anti jumps lobby has intensified its activities in recent years and their well-orchestrated campaign has hit a nerve with the local politicians and the racing authorities, who are extremely sensitive to public opinion, especially that whipped up by dramatic media portrayals of a ”cruel sport”.

In 2009, after a handful of fatalities at the Warrnambool carnival – Australian jumping’s equivalent of Cheltenham and Aintree rolled into one although there are actually more flat races at the three day meeting than jumping ones – ‘chasing and hurdling was temporarily suspended as the then Labour state government reacted to the animal activist’s campaigns.

Jumping was allowed to continue eventually, but Racing Victoria, the governing body in the state, declared that it would have to meet a series of key performance indicators in 2010 to survive. These were loosely based on the number of starters per races (crucial to keep up betting turnover, as Australian punters don’t bet on jumpers anyway and even less in small fields) and the number of fatalities.

Over half a million dollars’ worth of investment in new types of obstacles improved horses’ jumping and the KPI’s were met, much to the fury of the anti lobby.

Jumping is now largely a rural affair. Flemington, the home of the Melbourne Cup, also used to stage the Grand National Hurdle and Steeplechase, but that has now been moved to Sandown, on the edge of Melbourne’s south eastern urban sprawl. Moonee Valley and Caulfield, the other two metropolitan tracks, no longer stage jump races. Neither does Flemington.

The whole issue was raised again early in April, just at the start of the new season, when a horse called Casa Boy was killed at Warrnambool. Australian Jumping Racing president Rodney Rae tried to put things in perspective when he said : “There hasn’t been a jumps racing season where we haven’t had a fatality but our objective is to reduce them and we have been doing a very good job doing that the last couple of years. In the 25-30 years of recording statistics, last year was its lowest number of fatalities.”

Two horses died in 2010, the previous lowest having been five with the average between five and eight per year, Rae said.

Racing Victoria has allowed hurdle-racing to continue for the next three years although steeplechasing is to be reviewed annually, with the whole sector subject to key performance indicators as follows: The KPI of not more than 0.65 per cent of fatalities per starters in hurdle races will be measured as a rolling three-year average (including the 2010 season) at the end of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

The future of steeplechase racing beyond the 2011 program will also be subject to a KPI of 0.65 per cent of fatalities per starters.

The KPI will be measured as a rolling two year average (including the 2010 season) at the end of the 2011 season. A change of state government might give the jumping lobby some hope, however. The new Racing Minister is Liberal Denis Napthine is a country veterinary surgeon and former Opposition leader from Warrnambool, the heartland of the sport. He is a fervent supporter of jumps racing.

Michael Lynch

If the tough Aussies can’t beat animal rights campaigners on NH racing, what chance do we have?

Jumps racing in Australia is banned in all but two states, having been brought down by animal welfare campaigners.

One of the two remaining states is  now under siege according to today’s report in the Herald Sun:

THE Greens have called for jumps racing to be banned in South Australia after the death of a racehorse in Adelaide.

Seven-year-old Hammerblow was put down after falling during a hurdle trial at Morphettville racecourse yesterday.

Greens South Australian MP Tammy Franks said the death was likely to be one of many this year.

“Jumps racing is dangerous for both horses and jockeys,” Ms Franks said.

“The time for a long overdue and permanent ban in SA is now.”

Ms Franks said the Greens supported the RSPCA’s description of the sport as legalised cruelty and said it was time South Australia caught up with other Australian states.

South Australia and Victoria are the only states where jumps racing is still allowed.

The latest death also comes just two weeks before the annual Oakbank racing carnival in the Adelaide Hills which features a number of jumps events.

Also, see JA McGrath’s 2009 Telegraph article on this subject