Horse welfare under scrutiny in racing
The removal of Binocular from the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham has brought into sharp focus British horse racing's attempt to be drug free. This year's festival comes at a time when the sport is occupied with a number of high-profile welfare cases. It's an inescapable issue.
I witnessed at first hand the British Horseracing Authority's doping controls at Wincanton in Somerset at one of the final race meetings before Cheltenham.
The process is rigorous, and positive test are rare, about 20 a year. Most of theses are for what the BHA describes as ''medication'' issues.
And this is the case with Binocular. No rules have been breached in treating the horse out of competition.
Binocular was withdrawn voluntarily.
But the BHA insists it will not let a horse actually race even if its simply taking painkillers. Professor Tim Morris, the BHA's head of equine welfare, makes a comparison with human injury.
''If you have a pain in your foot and it's a hairline fracture and then you take a hefty dose of painkillers and go running it will become a proper fracture. Now that's OK for you because you can stop. But for a horse in the heat of a race at 35mph, with a jockey on top, that is not a sensible, safe or responsible thing to do. That's why we're so strict on it on welfare grounds.''
For Morris trying to maintain a strictly drug-free stance is fundamental to the sport's reputation.
''If you lose the trust of your public in any organisation, in any sport, getting that trust back is so, so difficult. That's why we're so hot on it,'' said Morris.
There have been cases where people have stepped over the line and that is quite clearly unacceptable
Roly Owers, World Horse Welfare
But the challenge for the BHA is to monitor every race, there are about 10,000 a year, and every trainer in every yard.
Howard Johnson has a leading contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in Tidal Bay. At the same time he is awaiting a hearing concerning another of his horses, Striking Article, which was put down after a race in Scotland. A post-mortem revealed nerves in its lower leg had been severed, effectively preventing it from feeling.
Racing horses which have been 'de-nerved' is banned on just the same welfare grounds; if a horse cannot feel, how it can it safely run and jump? Striking Article ran eight times after the operation.
Such cases are gravely concerning for those who spend their lives trying to protect the welfare of all horses. The economic downturn has left ordinary horses being abandoned in record numbers around Britain as their owners simply run out of money. The charity, World Horse Welfare, tries to rescue and rehabilitate them.
For Roly Owers, its chief executive, it's vital that racing sets an example in the way it deals with horse welfare and those who might abuse it.
''We as a charity support the use of horses in sport and that places a huge responsibility on all those involved to make sure they can ethically defend what they're doing. And certainly there have been cases where people have stepped over the line and that is quite clearly unacceptable."
Even in Binocular's absence crowds will flock to Cheltenham this week to witness great feats of equine speed and endurance. But between every horse and human there is a bond of trust. And now, more than ever before, that is the issue which racing must protect.