Monday 11 December 2017

Resilient game still reeling from tragedy

The fatal events at Newbury should not happen again, says J A McGrath

U nquestionably, the most disturbing feature of the bizarre events that took place in the paddock prior to racing at Newbury eight days ago was that professionals, many of whom had spent a lifetime with horses, never really knew what was happening.

Four horses behaving oddly, two struck down dead within seconds. It created a surreal atmosphere which many have spent the past week coming to grips with. Among that number is Barry Geraghty.

Geraghty, 31, one of only a handful of jockeys to have completed jump racing's glorious treble of winning the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle, will find it hard to erase the memory.

He was booked to ride Oasis Knight for trainer Nicky Henderson and was standing with other jockeys, and their owners and trainers, on the grass, inside the rubberised walkway that stretches around a parade ring that was packed with spectators looking forward to an exciting day's sport.

When the stricken horses, Marching Song and Fenix Two, fell backwards, reeling from an electric current being emitted by an underground power cable, there was a dash to assist them, though most did not have a clue at the time what was happening.

Geraghty recalled: "I rushed over to Fenix Two, who was lying on the ground. I tried to help him by opening up the girths [straps around the horse's belly holding the saddle]. But it was no use."

Geraghty went on to ride in that first race. Oasis Knight finished a distant second. The jockey came back to the makeshift unsaddling area, spoke to Henderson and back in the weighing room, he learnt that the card had been abandoned. Many colleagues focused immediately on the meeting at Warwick, and on whether they could pick up a couple of late rides there.

But Geraghty was not in the mood. "I could have ridden one at Warwick, but, frankly, I felt a bit sick, having seen all that had happened. It was a horrible sight. In racing, we spend all our time looking after horses, trying to train and care for them, so for this to happen was horrible. It was a rough day. I just hope I never see anything like it again," he said.

There has been criticism of the racecourse in isolated quarters for proceeding with that first race. With the remarkable perception that hindsight gifts those judging from their armchairs long after an event, critics have castigated officials for not evacuating earlier, for taking unnecessary risks with the lives of horses and racegoers. However, most, who found themselves caught up in the mayhem, would strongly disagree with that criticism. As Henderson said: "What had to be snap decisions were made correctly."

One supposedly redundant power cable, activated underground, under a parade ring that has been occupied by some of the greatest horses seen on British racecourses, ended the lives of two horses.

And, while Newbury gained clearance to run a rescheduled fixture on Friday, investigations continue into the reasons why the cable became live again. The racing game is resilient, a by-product of the hard work and ambition generated by those employed in the sport.

There would not have been one trainer, jockey, stable lad or lass, who had not thought over the past week how they would have coped had they been in the same situation.

Owners JP McManus (Fenix Two) and Jennifer Lewis and partners (Marching Song) were the unlucky ones, and as Lewis's husband Jim (of Best Mate fame) said: "We're still getting over the grief."

But it is now private grief, carried out at a respectful distance from the build-up to Cheltenham, and day-to-day racing activity. There has been no lack of sensitivity, only a desire to draw a line under a freak occurrence that should never happen again in our lifetime.

Racing people often reflect on the fact that the wider media never become interested unless there is a drama or controversy to report. Racing, after all, remains the sport with the second-highest annual attendance figures.


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