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Is the Grand National a cruel sport? We have a look at both sides of the debate

By anitamerritt | Posted: April 07, 2017

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This weekend millions of people will be tuning in for horse racing's biggest event of the year. The Grand National, taking place on Saturday, April 8, generates tens of millions of pounds in bets every year.

It's estimated that a quarter of British adults bet on the race, and that the majority of these gamble their money on little more than the name of the horse. But not everyone will be reveling in the sporting spirit. Since 2000, the highly lucrative event has claimed the lives of 48 horses, and animal rights campaigners say the famous race course is still responsible for a significant number of deaths.

In Exeter on the day of the race, a Vegan Fair & Bake Sale is being held to give people the change to donate the money they would have spent on a bet to a charity which looks after ex-racehorses. Here are the very contrasting views of two people from Devon who reveal what the think about the Grand National...

The Animal Rights Activist:

Sharon Howe, 48, from Sidmouth

Joint co-ordinator of Exeter Friends for Animals

"Last year's Aintree Grand National meeting was the most deadly this century: six horses died as a result of the three days of racing, taking the total of equine fatalities at Aintree since 2000 to 48.

"Despite assurances that courses have been modified to make them less dangerous, and that racehorses are treated 'like kings', the fact remains that modern racehorses are bred – indeed inbred – for speed at the expense of general health, lead an unnatural life and are often shot or sold for slaughter at the end of their careers. The same applies to the huge numbers of surplus animals from overbreeding, or those who fail to make the grade.

"At this year's Cheltenham Festival three horses died but it never gets much media attention. The reality is hundreds of horses die through racing every year.

"It's all about money and they are dispensable. Often you hear from the other side how the horses have a luxurious life because there's a lot of money riding on them - literally. They are often stabled for a long time and so want to race, but they are not given any choice.


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"The problem we find with the Grand National is so many people bet on it who wouldn't normally bet on a horse race. They think it's a special occasion and don't attribute it with a living and breathing creature and what can happen to it. The number of horses killed through horse racing is really important to bring to peoples' attention.

"We can't stop people but we encourage them to just think before they make a bet. Normally Exeter Friends for Animals stand outside betting shops and give out leaflets because betting income keeps the racing industry in business.

"Instead, why not donate the money to a charity such as Hillside Animal Sanctuary which rescues horses, including ex-racehorses? We'll also be collecting for this cause at the Exeter Vegan Fair & Bake Sale, which will take place on Grand National day at the Palace Gate Centre in Exeter. Why not come along and enjoy an alternative, cruelty-free day out with delicious animal-free cakes and bakes? All proceeds will go to animal causes.

"It means we won't be outside betting shops this year, but we have found that over the years when we hand out leaflets it turns people away from going in to make a bet and I have even seen people in tears when they are told the truth and are shown pictures of some of the horses that have broken their legs. It's then they realise how harrowing it is.

"People think it's a harmless flutter - but it's not."

The Racehorse Trainer:

Martin Hill, 62, Totnes

Owner of Martin Hill Racing with around 40 years experience in racehorse training

"They have tightened up the rules regarding the quality of horses involved. The quality is much higher than it used to be. The qualifying process is quite stringent so you now have a better quality of horses running in the race.

"The restrictions regarding riding qualifications are also much tighter than they used to be so not only have you got better horses, the abilities of riders are also better.

"They have also changed the nature of the course. It's no longer as demanding as it used to be. They have filled in some of the open ditches such as on the landing side to reduce the risk of horses falling. This has been reflected in the figures which show there are less numbers of horses falling and less numbers of serious injuries than there were 15 years ago. It's a considerably more humane event than it was back in the '60s to 80's.

"Of course, anything that is good for the welfare of the horses and the safety of the riders is a good thing.


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"They are still looking to run something that's a spectacle but one that is fair to the horses and I think it is a lot fairer test of the horse than in years gone by. Most of the changes have come in within the past 15 years and it has been a gradual process.

"But nothing is risk free. Although the number of injuries and fatalities in racing are much lower than they have been, it's still a risk. It's the same risk as if you go skiing or compete in a bike ride. There are risks involved doing anything that is exhilarating and competitive. It's the same for human beings as it is for horses.

"And just like humans, horses enjoy it. You couldn't make them do it if they didn't. They are bred for it and then schooled and prepared to be a race horse. They get the best treatment of any horse on the planet and we love them. We love the game of racing, the sport and we love the animals involved in it.

"If a race horse breaks its leg they are not good patients because they don't want to lie down for several weeks. Fractures are common and they can get over them but an actual break of a bone is something different all together.

"We are quite a small yard with about eight horses in training. We have to rehome a couple of horses a year such as when they don't work out or retire. One has just gone to an excellent home in Cornwall to be a riding horse and six of ours are now hunting in Dartmoor with various different packs.

"I've only had to put down one horse in the past 10 years and that's because it had a tumour in the brain. There was no saving it. There is another life for horses. Retraining of Racehorses (ROR) is charity funded by racing and gives horses another chance for a different career.

"People think racehorses are used and abused but believe me, it's not the case. There's an exception to every rule but in general it's just not true, as is what some people say about the Grand National.

"Ultimately I believe the race is a fair and humane test of horses now."

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3 comments

  • High-Flyer | April 07 2017, 5:29PM

    Steveholmes: as usual you comments lack any kind of logic

  • Steveholmes | April 07 2017, 4:37PM

    Horses are bred to race just like animals are bred to be killed and eaten. If you dont like it then turn your tv off for 20mins

    | -31
  • High-Flyer | April 07 2017, 4:03PM

    I'm not a fan: especially now I see the average number of deaths this century is 3 per race, if that sort of carnage (animal or human) in any other sort of competition, it would be curtailed

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