As the pleasing outcome of the whip controversy proves, plenty within racing can bring objective method to complex ethical problems. Thankfully, the sport does not lack for good thinkers and new BHA Chairman Paul Bittar is happy to allow their voices to be heard.
In my opinion, the same process should now be applied to crystalise the principles with which equine fatalities are considered. This was brought into sharp focus at the Cheltenham Festival by the loss of five horses, including two in the cross country chase.
The whip debate brought to the surface some interesting truths about racing’s governance. On all topics in which it might be attacked from the outside, racing must learn to defend itself from first principles rather than PR – from the bottom up, not the top down.
So, when stopping to ask the troubling question “how much is too much?” where equine deaths are concerned, it should immediately exclude such specious arguments as “these horses are kept in five-star accommodation” or “nobody cares more about horses than we do” or similar. For these are too easy to defeat.
In the case of the cross country chase, the argument which followed the loss of life was framed around the novelty of the course. Should it be banned? Has it really a part to play at the Festival?
Cheltenham supremo Edward Gillespie countered robustly and effectively, though an intelligent man should hardly be troubled to find a defence: it is easy to discern there is no statistical basis to differentiate between the cross country race and chasing in general. The rate of fallers is low and, in any case, the sample size is too small to make any rational decision.
This is a quick and dirty take on the problem, of course. Changes to the watering, the signage and the particular layout of fences should always be reviewed and improved using experience and safety-first sensitivity. After all, this type of event is relatively new.
But to ban it? The idea is rather frightening for it would not be an evidence-based response. Instead, rather like the muddled rules initially imposed on use of the whip, it would be predicated by a knee-jerk reaction to the spectre of death; it would be fostered by the need to do something to smooth the ripple-effect on our conscience, to prove to others that its sensibility towards death within the sport is in step with contemporary values.
On the issue of the whip, the sport eventually realised that all superficial argument could be sublimated to one immutable truth: when the cushioned whip is employed by a rider adhering to principles of sound horsemanship, there is no scientific evidence it is an instrument of injury or pain, so any criticism which implies as much is fatally flawed.
These, then, are the sport’s first principles on use of the whip. And, while they have not been formalised explicitly, they are implied directly by the rules and penalties for offenders.
So, what of equine death and serious injury – a much bigger debate still? Which first principles will the sport rely on to defend itself in future, to answer the question of “how much is too much”?
In my opinion, it will pay the sport handsomely to come up with a sounder response than commonly advanced.