Victoria’s decision to ban jump racing is fundamentally wrong-headed, says Neil Clark
Saturday 31 March 1973. The venue: Aintree, Liverpool. The event: the Grand National, the world’s greatest steeplechase. Those lucky enough to be at the racetrack or — like me — watching on television, were about to witness one of the greatest sporting duels of all time. Joint favourites for the race were the locally trained Red Rum and the former Australian champion steeplechaser Crisp, aka ‘The Black Kangaroo’.
Crisp had to carry top weight of 12 stone. To take such a burden to victory in a four-and-a-half-mile marathon would be a truly Herculean task. In one of the most exhilarating displays of front-running ever seen at Aintree, the Black Kangaroo bounded clear of his rivals; at one stage he was more than a fence clear of his pursuers. The BBC commentator, running out of superlatives, said he couldn’t remember a horse so far ahead in the National. In the final stages of the race, Red Rum, carrying 23 pounds less than his rival, began to close. Crisp was still 15 lengths clear after the last fence, but the weight difference started to tell. In the shadow of the post, Red Rum got up to deny his Australian opponent an epic victory.
Although the local favourite had won, Crisp’s heroic effort made a huge impact on racing fans. In 2004, the race was voted the second greatest of all time by the readers of Racing Post.
I thought of the gallant Black Kangaroo when I heard the news last month that jump racing was to be banned in Victoria. From 2011, South Australia will be the only state in the country to host jump racing, meaning that the chances of a Crisp or a Karasi (three times winner of the Nakayama Grand Jump in Japan) emerging from Australia to compete in the world’s top steeplechases are greatly diminished.
The ban in Victoria was passed after 20 horses died in jump races in the state over the past two years. For animal welfare organisations (and, it seems, the majority of citizens of Victoria, 65 per cent of whom support a ban), the price, in terms of equine deaths and injuries, was simply too high to justify the sport continuing.
I beg to differ. I love horses and abhor mindless cruelty to animals. But what opponents of jump racing forget is that the horses are bred to race, and if jump racing is banned, the number of horses in Australia would inevitably fall. Banning jump racing is an anti-horse measure, not a pro-horse one.
Of course, it’s highly regrettable that horses sometimes get killed in races, but their deaths are an accidental by-product and not the aim of the sport. To label jump racing as ‘barbaric’, as some animal rights campaigners have done, and bracket the sport with bear-baiting and bullfighting, is absurd.
Those involved in jump racing are not callous, bloodthirsty brutes, but people who care so deeply about horses that they devote their entire lives to them. And generally speaking, no one feels the death of a racehorse as keenly as those most closely associated with them: owners, trainers, jockeys and stable staff. Each equine death is a source of great sadness, and when the horse is a popular, well-known performer such as Spanish Symbol, the winner of the 2007 Hiskens Steeplechase who was killed in the 2008 renewal of the race, even more so. But reacting to equine deaths by banning jump racing is like banning motorbikes because of occasional bike crashes.
We dwell enough on the unfortunate downside of the sport, but the upside takes us to places few sports can match. Last month I was lucky enough to be at Newbury for the Hennessy Gold Cup, one the most prestigious races in the English jump racing calendar. The favourite was the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Denman, who was making his seasonal debut. Denman was unstoppable in 2007/8, but his career — and life — looked to be in the balance when a serious heart condition was discovered. On his last run at Aintree in April, Denman had fallen and then collapsed. But he got up, to the huge relief of the crowd. Although his condition was said to be cured, doubts remained as to whether Denman would ever return to his glorious best. At Newbury, he answered those doubts in emphatic style, bringing the house down with a wonderfully gutsy performance, which reduced his trainer, a battle-hardened professional who thought he’d experienced everything there was to experience in racing, to speechlessness and the edge of tears.
Yes, jumps horses do risk their lives every time they go out on the track, but the risk is still a relatively small one. In return for running that risk, the horses are well-housed, well-fed and well looked-after. And let us never forget that when they race, the horses are doing something they are bred to do and that they clearly enjoy (witness how many horses who lose their jockeys carry on jumping round the course). I’d bet good money that if the horses were able to have a say in Victoria’s decision, they’d vote by a clear majority for jump racing to continue.
If South Australia follows Victoria’s example and bans jump racing, an important part of Australia’s great sporting tradition will be lost. The first jumps race to be held in Australia was in Sydney in 1832. Victoria held its first meeting seven years later. Replacing jump racing with high-weight two-mile flat races, as has been proposed, is no substitute: a Warrnambool festival without fences would be like Wimbledon without grass, or mime artists replacing singers at Sydney Opera House.
Jump racing provides a wonderful spectacle and is a marvellous antidote to the blandness and predictability of much of modern life. In the words of the late Queen Mother, it is ‘one of the real sports that’s left to us — a bit of danger and a bit of excitement — and the horses, which are the best thing in the world’. And it’s precisely because horses are such noble animals that we should be doing all we can to save the sport in Australia.
Neil Clark writes for the Racing Post and is a correspondent for Racing & Football Outlook.