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Home truths always hard to accept

Injured horses are put down because it is the humane thing to do, writes Ronan Groome

It was a bit unfortunate the way things happened at the beginning of the second race on the second day of the Leopardstown festival, a two-mile maiden hurdle.

The young horses lined up at the usual two-mile race starting point, just off the bend on the turn into the straight, and headed for the first flight, which is the only flight in the straight.

Miktalina was a 66/1 shot. He came to the flight, took off okay but never got the landing gear out which led to him falling on his neck and doing a full somersault, bouncing off the ground. Miktalina never got up.

Leopardstown did well last week. Numbers were up, people crowded into every vantage point. It was the type of race meeting from yesteryear and a welcome break for many involved in the industry.

A lot of the attendance were likely to be people who go racing maybe twice a year, maybe only at Christmas, maybe there for the first time, as is the case with all the big festivals in Ireland. These are the type of people crucial to HRI. The people who could make the difference to an industry on a downward curve.

The location of this second race incident was unfortunate. There is only one flight in Leopardstown's straight and it happens to be close to the busy pavilion area at the racecourse. If the immediate onlookers didn't know what was about to happen, they would soon come to the harsh realisation as the staff errected the green screens.

Later in the day, there was another bad fall. This time a much more high-profile one. Golden Silver was in the Grade One race of the day, he was a three-time Grade One winner himself and he was a grand old servant to Willie Mullins.

He jumped his first few fences well, he was usually a good jumper, but when he came to the first fence in the back straight, he got it all wrong. It was similar in a way to Miktalina's fall; the horse did a full somersault, breaking his neck in the process.

RTE have a camera that faces the runners as they proceed down the back straight. It's a good camera angle, on the track you get to see the action head-on, you see how effectively the horses jump, a view that lasts about 45 seconds.

The same rule applies for the large audience at home watching the RTE coverage, many watching racing for the first time. And it was just an unfortunate circumstance that while the other runners proceeded to race on, the eye was attracted to poor Golden Silver, lying on the ground, now motionless.

There was a total of five deaths at Leopardstown last week. It was interesting that in the aftermath of last year's Grand National, when the bonfire that was the whip debate first burst into flames, the BBC reported 329 complaints from viewers, only eight of which were complaints concentrating on the use of the whip.

That's just 2.4 per cent of the total. Strange, when just under half of the complaints that went into the BBC, 161 to be exact, were about the horses that had been killed.

You can imagine the same questions will always be asked by people unfamiliar with racing. Why can't the horse be treated for a broken leg like a human can?

Dermot McIlveen has only recently retired as senior veterinary officer at the Turf Club, and he is able to explain the situation profoundly with his own experience and expertise.

"When a horse breaks a leg, because of the extent of weight going on to it, the bone is nearly always shattered. And when you have a bone that is shattered, there is no way you can get that to stand up to any sort of surgery," he says.

"A horse is too big and will put too much weight on the leg and there simply is no recovery from here. This works against the animal because should it go through surgery it's nearly certain that the leg would fracture straight away as soon as the horse puts weight back on it.

"Even if you were to do surgery, your horse has every chance of experiencing laminitis disease. This happens when a horse cannot lean its weight onto the injured limb, therefore putting extra weight onto the three other legs, which cause them dreadful pain."

But why can't they use slings to keep a horse from putting weight down on the injured limb? What about replacing the bone with an artificial one?

"Again this just goes back to sheer body mass," McIlveen explains. "You see with cats and dogs, they could lose a limb completely and freely walk about on three limbs but that simply doesn't work with horses. Once you get a fracture of any part of the limb, hind or front, or the shoulder, that's the end of the horse. This also opens the door to laminitis in the future, something that should never be forced upon a horse, and also, you simply can't tell or instruct a horse to stay still or not move while the leg heals."

The most perturbing thing for a lot of people is the fact that very little time is taken for a decision to be made by vets to put a horse down on the racecourse.

But McIlveen explains that once a vet is at the scene, he or she will nearly always know straight away whether the animal has a chance or not.

There is also another reason for acting quickly: "When a horse breaks a leg, 99 per cent of the time it won't feel pain for the first 15 minutes. Yes, you see horses rearing up when the accident happens, however this is mostly because they can no longer put weight down on the injured leg and this confuses and upsets them.

"The vet on the course also has the responsibility to make the decision, and it's not a case that owners or trainers must allow the procedure to take place."

A lot of people still have a strong suspicion that the decision to put a horse down is purely a monetary one. That the sheer cost factor is simply too much hassle for an owner left with an injured horse.

But that argument doesn't hold up when you talk about cases like Rewilding. The Godolphin horse was about to launch his challenge in the King George at Ascot last season before breaking a cannon bone three furlongs out and was put down instantly. His potential value at stud was massive.

When they say that the same accident can happen in the paddock, it's not an over exaggeration. Echo Of Light cost €1.2m as a yearling, he was one of only two stallion sons to the also ill-fated Dubai Millennium and he was a hugely promising sire heading into his second season at stud.

He was left out in the paddock after his morning work last Tuesday and it was here that he broke his leg while cantering around aimlessly. It's just the way it goes.

The real perception problem for racing is not whip use but dealing with how the public perceive horses dying on the racecourse.

Thoroughbreds are incredibly powerful animals. Brave, tough and resilient. But in any instance when galloping, if they put one foot wrong, land the wrong way or even slip on the surface, they may as well be made of glass.

It's tough to explain, it's tough for people to understand, but it is part and parcel of the sport. Racing is an industry that exploits animals and that's a home truth everyone inside the industry should be able to accept. The problem will always be with those outside.

Sunday Indo Sport