The Sport of Kings

By Alice Healy, First Year English Literature and History

Horse racing has long been seen as the ‘sport of kings’, for the fashionable and wealthy. Events, such as the Grand National (a steeplechase which is the climax of a three-day festival), attract huge amounts of media attention – who is best dressed on the famous Ladies’ Day, whose hat is the most outlandish? Yet, the glamorisation of this ‘sport’ masks the depths of cruelty faced by the very animals involved. Whilst, of course, many of the trainers and jockeys involved in the industry do seem to care for the animals they raise and ride, horse racing is a hugely profitable business. This profit is achieved not through consistent care and compassion, but ultimately through exploitation and an incessant quest for superiority. The veneer of apparent devotion to the horses involved, paints an unrealistic picture of an industry steeped in cruelty.

Since 2000, 48 horses have died at Aintree

The death toll of the Grand National race is so accepted that it no longer comes as a surprise when a horse falls and dies; after all, the race itself is designed to be a dangerous and punishing challenge. Throughout the history of the Grand National, 83 horses have died. Since 2000, 48 horses have died at Aintree, 11 of which died in the Grand National race itself (as of April 2018). Whilst fences have been reduced in height to try to avoid more deaths on the course, the fences and ditches, when approached at such speed, are still exceptionally dangerous. As veterinarian Emma Milne said, “The bitter paradox of racing is that the breeding of horses for speed directly undermines their ability to cope with jumps. For what a racehorse owner wants is a thin, light creature [who] can move as fast as possible – exactly the type of horse most likely to be vulnerable when forced over jumps of more than five feet high.” The disconnect between an animal’s brutal, and avoidable, death and the millions of people both betting on and attending these horse racing events clearly shows the depths of hypocrisy in our society. ‘Animal lovers’ should not fund an industry that physically and mentally punishes animals.

The act of pushing a horse past its physical and mental limits highlights the cruelty inherent in this industry. Horses are often drugged with stimulants in order to run faster and are encouraged to overexert themselves through whipping; with huge amounts of money on offer to a winning trainer, it is unsurprising that drug use is rife in the industry. Horse whipping is a hugely contentious issue and is an act now banned in California, with the exception of a riding crop being used “as a corrective safety measure.” Though, particularly in the UK, riding crops are energy absorbing and are subject to very strict measures, pushing a horse to its physical and psychological limits still increases the risk of injury, including pulmonary bleeding caused by overexertion. Whipping can be especially dangerous when combined with pain relieving drugs, which mask a horse’s natural desire to slow down if overexerted. What is perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of horse racing is that young horses are run despite having underdeveloped bones, making the necessity for drugs even more apparent and the likelihood of bone breakage even greater. The industry, of course, involves some who care for their horses, and some trainers do prevent young horses from running; yet, surely we must question justifying or funding a ‘sport’ which normalises animals being consistently pushed towards their physical breaking point.

The frantic mass production of thoroughbred foals is done in the hope of producing a single racing champion

A less obvious issue involved in horse racing occurs ‘behind the scenes,’ so to speak. Nurse mares are repeatedly impregnated to produce milk for thoroughbred foals; a nurse mare’s foals, however, are merely a by-product. Due to their lack of value, many are starved to death, slaughtered for meat, or sold to the tanning industry to produce ‘pony skins’ or Cordovan leather. The frantic mass production of thoroughbred foals is done in the hope of producing a single racing champion. This champion may grace a TV screen, but the truth of what happens to the foals of its surrogate mother will never garner such media attention. The foals that never achieve such ‘greatness’ are forgotten and discarded, to be expected in a sport centred around profit.

Of course, there are many issues surrounding this topic, not all of which can be addressed fully. Though an uncomfortable subject, especially for those of us brought up with the idea that horse racing is a normal, enjoyable and entertaining sport (myself included), it is important to challenge the traditions we are presented with. Many of us are animal lovers, many involved in the sport of horse racing do love their horses, but how much suffering should we allow to occur to an innocent animal, and animals indirectly involved in the industry, for a human’s quest for profit and glory?

(Another 3 horses died in the 2019 Aintree festival.)

Alice Healy is a first year student studying English Literature and History. When she is not reading for an essay in John’s library, you will find Alice promoting ethical and environmentally friendly living. In her spare time Alice enjoys participating in college squash and football, both of which give her a small break from reading and writing!

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