Every year the debate rages about the ethics, safety and value in general of hurdle and steeple chase racing.
My memories may be somewhat romanticised by the passage of time but my recollections of my early days watching jumps racing from the mid 90’s were of races with fairly regular falls, but horse fatalities weren’t that common. Please keep in mind, this is from memory, I have no statistics to back this up.
Jumps races were longer and the jumps were bigger, the horses were a different type and it would have been very rare indeed for a steeple chaser to win a flat race. Occasionally a hurdler would get up in a flat race but that was by no means common either. The big races like Grand Nationals and Grand Annuals were spectacular, thrilling events won by horses that could stay all day and stay on their feet for the duration of the races. The horses competing in the feature races were older horses in their second or subsequent seasons of jumping following a sometimes moderate, but usually extensive career in flat racing.
Then followed a period of good natured but flawed attempts to make jumping safer. The measures put in place included reducing the distance of races and changing the configuration of the obstacles so that they were smaller and softer. The old slow stayers and clever jumpers who could win a Grand National Steeple like my old favourite Crafty Dancer could no longer keep up with four or five year olds straight out of flat racing brushing through the new jumps over shorter distances. Unfortunately, the effect of a horse making a mistake at a jump at high speed, even a smaller jump, could be devastating.
My recollection of this period was of carnage. I remember the Grand National Hurdle at Flemington in 2008 when only 4 of the 13 runners completed the course. Falls became more common and they were more often deadly.
I can’t help thinking that if the changes made in this period were made with greater consultation with the racing fraternity rather than the apparent appeasement of the animal liberationists, many horses could have been saved.
More recently, stocks of jumping horses became depleted as fewer owners and trainers wanted to commit to a long jumping preparation when there were so many fewer jumps races and at any time the sport could have been outlawed. Again this weakened races and meant that unseasoned jumpers progressed to the Nationals and other endurance events before they were ready with obvious consequences.
The support from Government and the racing industry starting last season were a great boost for the sport. The current jumps seem to be doing the trick and the horses appear to be showing them much more respect. The benefits will be seen in the flow on effect this season with a larger pool of horses eligible to race over the sticks and jockeys with more jumps rides under their belts. There are some genuine stars emerging in the jumping ranks, horses, jockeys and trainers alike who can take the sport to a new level.
I’m hoping for a successful and safe jumping season, it hasn’t been a great start with a death in the first steeple chase in Melbourne this year and two deaths in the Grand National at Aintree. Let’s hope they can turn it around and the Warrnambool carnival can strike back after last year’s events.
Are the ‘up and overs’ worth keeping?