Shocking photos shame the ‘sport of kings’

Champion: Edward Whitaker’s award-winning work captures the nobility of horses. © Getty

Should horse racing be banned? Pictures of a prominent trainer and a jockey disrespecting dead horses have outraged fans and critics of the sport alike, sparking debate about animal rights.

June 19, 2019. The horses were galloping faster and faster. A mass of manes, tails and hooves began to separate as the race unfolded, and a likely winner poked its head from out of the pack. Soon, some horses were lengths behind, forgotten. Bay Hill had triumphed. The Boylesports Beginner’s Chase at Wexford was over.

Morgan was one of those forgotten horses. He died during training two weeks after that race, in which he finished a respectable fourth.

Now, however, Morgan will forever be fixed in the memory of racing fans. That is because a photo has emerged of his trainer, Gordon Elliott, astride his corpse.

The trainer, who twice won the Grand National, seems too comfortable by half, smiling as he chats on the phone while sitting on an animal that has been worked to death.

Elliott has apologised for his lack of respect and the horses he trains have been banned from British races.

The day after the photo leaked, a video emerged of a jockey sitting on another dead horse.

For many, these are signs that the racing industry has no concern for the creatures on whose backs its money is made.

Racing – and the training for it – can take a severe toll on horses. The UK animal rights group Animal Aid claims that one in every 37 horses that start a racing season will die or be destroyed because of an injury.

This is the ugly side of racing, which styles itself as a noble pursuit, built on a bond between rider and steed forged over thousands of years.

Archaeological evidence about horse riding suggests that horses were first domesticated in what is now Kazakhstan around 3500BC.

Horses allowed hunters to cover more ground; warriors could charge their enemies; and horses could even do the work of many people, making farming easier. Horsepower remade the world.

This transformation may be why horses are celebrated in myths from India to Scandinavia.

For many, the ultimate celebration of the world humans and horses made together is racing. The chariot race was a major event in the Ancient Olympics. In the 4th Century BC, a Chinese general made his name with a strategy for winning horse races.

As it is practised now, horse racing follows rules that were largely established in Britain and Ireland.

It is because of the British and their monarchs that racing is known as “the sport of kings”. In the early 1600s, James I spent so much time riding horses in the small village of Newmarket that complaints were raised in parliament. It was there that his grandson Charles II became the first and only king to win an official race.

Newmarket is still an important racecourse, and horse racing on flats and jumps has spread around the world, from Kentucky to Dubai.

This tradition is part of what has helped make horse racing a big business. An even bigger business is the gambling alongside it, which is worth around $115bn a year.

With so much money at stake, some think that racing has lost sight of the true value of horses.

So should horse racing be banned?

Horseplay

No, say some. The actions of a few should not distract from the fact that racehorses are treated with far more care and respect than most other animals kept by humans. Would you rather be a racehorse or a dairy cow, let alone a caged chicken? This is a sport that is enjoyed by millions and has been practised by countless cultures for thousands of years.

Yes it should, say others. For five hundred years, one of Britain’s most popular pastimes was torturing a bear chained to a pole. Tradition is no excuse, and just as bear-baiting has disappeared, so should horse racing. In the UK alone, 140 horses died while racing in 2020. A new sport that killed horses at that rate would be greeted with public uproar and banned instantly.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to be world champion of a sport if it meant that someone else controlled every aspect of your life?
  2. Is it crueller to harm animals for entertainment than for the pleasure of eating them?

Activities

  1. The king of the Norse gods, Odin, had an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, while the Greek hero Perseus had a winged horse called Pegasus. Write a story about a race between the two of them.
  2. In most sports, performance enhancing drugs are banned. Research the rules in horse racing and then write a short argument for or against letting all trainers give their horses drugs if they want to.

Some People Say...

“Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads, But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts. Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.”

Edwin Muir (1887 – 1959), Scottish poet, from his poem “Horses”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that the horse racing community cares at least as much about breeding as it does about training. In fact, all horses that compete in the world’s major horse races belong to a breed called thoroughbreds and are descended from at least one of three horses that were brought to England between the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Barb. Some argue that even this breeding has been cruel, resulting in horses more prone to injury.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is about the usefulness of the whip in horse racing. In some races, jockeys are permitted to whip their horses while in others they are not. In 2020, a scientific paper argued that there was no meaningful difference in race times between so-called “hands and heel” races without whips, and those that used them. This argument was disputed by many trainers and jockeys, who also believe the whip is necessary for steering the horse in emergencies.

Word Watch

Lengths
A length is 2.4 metres, which is roughly the length of a horse. This is the unit used to measure margins of victory in horse racing.
Wexford
A town in Leinster, Ireland, and the home of a famous racecourse. The earliest record of horse racing in the area is in the 1870s.
Grand National
This race, held every year at Aintree, near Liverpool, is the most popular in the UK.
Destroyed
The term used when a horse is euthanised because it is no longer useful to keep – or because it is so injured that it is cruel to keep it alive.
Steed
An older word for horse. It is related to the word stud, still used for a male horse who is kept to breed more horses.
India
One legend, for example, is of Uchchaihshravas, a seven-headed flying horse who was the king of horses.
Scandinavia
The Norse god Odin won a famous race against the giant god Hrungir, while riding his eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
Chariot
A small carriage drawn by horses. The earliest dated remains of a chariot are from around 2000 BC.
Flats and jumps
The chief division in modern horse racing is between a flat course race and those that involve jumping over fences and hurdles. The Grand National is a race with jumps. Because of the danger of many horses jumping nearby each other, more horses tend to be injured in this kind of race.

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