Friday 19 January 2018

Living with a fatal attraction

Jump racing will always have its dangers but it's the risk that makes it great, says Ian McClean

Ian McClean

H aving a coffee with Clodagh last week, the conversation invariably turned to the Grand National.

"Wasn't it awful that two horses were killed?" she said inquiringly, with just the slightest grimace. I agreed.

She wasn't critical or accusing or hostile or holier-than-thou -- she was simply asking what any ordinary citizen with any shred of empathy would naturally ask. And then came the equally innocent follow-up. "And are you okay with that?" I'm not quite certain of my reply, but the question continued to ripple with me for the rest of the week.

Because the question wasn't levelled at me as an individual, but as someone whose career, identity and prosperity is inextricably married to the industry that allowed this to bring to 20 the number of fatalities in the Grand National since 1998. Just as it is likely yours is, if you're reading this piece.

It struck me that our ability to ply our trade is done so only with the continued consent and tolerance of the general public. Withdraw that and we are all worse off. Consistently, as a professional involved with the horseracing industry, my conscience is pricked each time a horse is injured, or beaten up by a whip or (even deeper) when a horse is killed in the name of sport. And just because it happens with monotonous impunity doesn't make it right, or create any less of a requirement to reconcile and be at peace with it.

The reactions of various interest groups to the Aintree fatalities was as characteristic as it was predictable. Animal rights representatives jammed the media in protest. The tabloids had a feeding frenzy with the News of the World emblazoning the headline 'Horrific' across the top of the page, whilst the Mail on Sunday carried incendiary images of prostrate horses and flailing limbs.

Meanwhile, the racing fraternity defended and rationalised the carnage. Amongst the three factions, the hypocrisy of the tabloids is most transparent. As paper never refused ink, no tabloid ever refused controversy as it meets its one golden rule. Sell. Provocative imagery and inflammatory headlines cater to the mission. As indeed did the £250 Free Bet promotion the previous day in the Daily Mail. So what if they're in direct contradiction. It's just unfortunate that tabloids can influence public opinion.

When you look beyond vested interests there are two separate issues at play. The first is the safety aspect of the Grand National, but the broader ethical issue is whether horses should be used by humans for the purpose of sport and leisure.

The use and abuse of animals in the service of humankind is as old as history and still prevails today whether in the field of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, fashion, scientific research or food industries to name just a handful. Nobody condones it but we are not forced to confront it when we're tucking into the chicken nuggets or filling our baskets in the local supermarket or scenting ourselves with the latest fragrance.

By contrast, a worldwide TV audience in the hundreds of millions for the Aintree spectacle forces us to confront. Dead horses are unpalatable to all of us, but the spectre is even more unpalatable to a once-a-year public with little understanding and no connection to the sport because they have no context. And the context is that almost every horse in the sport receives more love, care and attention than some humans get in certain parts of the world. Or even this country.

We live in a world of increasing homogenisation and sanitisation. Of political correctness and standardisation. From currency alignment to food safety, all public policies seem to converge in the service of risk mitigation and reduction.

Little wonder the number one global growth sector is the area of gaming where our children (and millions of adults) are migrating in their droves with the hope of experiencing what they call in the gaming world an 'epic win'. Opportunities for epic wins are dwindling in the real world which is why jump racing presents such an attraction.

The attraction is in the danger and the risk as horses gallop at speed from fence to fence. Showcased at its best at festivals like Aintree, Cheltenham and Punchestown, jump racing has the uplifting power to connect joy to the human spirit in ways that very few avenues left open to us currently can. That elusive magic, manifested in the Grand National, has been capturing imaginations for nigh on two centuries.

Last Saturday, Aintree played host to a sell-out crowd and a record worldwide TV audience. Betting turnover was the highest ever with many of the bookmaker websites creaking under the volume strain. The health of the industry means more owners, which means more horses, which means greater overall welfare for the horse population. To eliminate all risk from the sport is to kill the thing which makes it great, attractive and healthy. It means there will inevitably be injury and occasional fatality. But in answer to Clodagh's question, working through the entries of this complex balance sheet -- in net terms -- I'm okay with that.

That, however, is academic, because ultimately the fate of the race and the future of jump racing will be decided by the Clodaghs of this world in any case. Which is something those of us who know and love the sport should do well to remember.

Sunday Indo Sport

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