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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 6 December, 2019

Johnny Ward's Day 2 verdict: British racing bosses doing their best to bring an end to the sport

There was another day of drama and emotion in the Cotswolds, meanwhile.

Trainer Joseph O'Brien celebrates winning the sixth race of the day with JJ Slevin on Band Of Outlaws.
Trainer Joseph O'Brien celebrates winning the sixth race of the day with JJ Slevin on Band Of Outlaws.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ON A DAY when concern about high winds forcing racing being called off soon blew over (hep, hep), one wonders will we soon have any racing in Britain at all.

The British Horseracing Authority, for one, seems to be doing its best to bring about an end to the sport.

If you do not believe me, ask Nicky Henderson, as doubts prevail over the future of an amateur riders’ race that was first run in 1860.

The BHA’s treatment of Declan Lavery, given a 10-day ban for his ride on Jerrysback in the National Hunt Chase on Tuesday, is the latest alarming step in British racing’s deference to an animal rights lobby that would be all but laughed at in Ireland.

Lavery had persevered on a tired Jerrysback in the historic four-mile race for amateurs, safely negotiating the final fence to finish a remote third. He achieved the best possible placing, as you are required to do by the rules.

Yet the BHA found that he was essentially flogging a dead horse.

And the wording is almost incredible.

Lavery, the BHA decreed, “had continued in the race when it appeared to be contrary to the horse’s welfare”.

Imagine bawling at a runner with 500 metres left in his or her first attempt at a marathon: “What are you doing! Think of your welfare! Think of your welfare! Won’t you please think of your welfare!”

In the same way, football needs to change its rules as soon as possible. Brave defensive headers from corners great and all – but won’t you please think of your welfare!

It is striking how very many Britons fail to contextualise racehorses – as if these athletes, treated better by their staff than very many humans, are no different to the family dog. The first news bulletin I observed here on Tuesday morning focused primarily on Cheltenham trying to lessen its equine fatalities – a staggering aside on the first day of the biggest showcase of our sport.

And that evening, the mainstream media did not seem to know what was a bigger story: long-shot Espoir D’allen winning the Champion Hurdle by a huge margin or the fact that an animal was dead.

I recently chatted to an Irish jockey who had suffered a horrific fall and avoided paralysis by sheer luck. The treatment he received in the English hospital, he said, was excellent – but something else stuck in his recollection.

“The funny thing was,” he said, still recovering from a fall that nearly left him paralysed, “the nurses asked what happened me and would nearly all react the same: ‘Right, but was the horse OK?’”

Commiserations to connections of Ballyward, a beautiful beast who sadly paid the ultimate price on Tuesday. Thankfully, rider Patrick Mullins was fine after Ballyward’s fall, unlike John Thomas McNamara, another amateur who sustained a fall at this Festival fresh in memory that cost him his life.

John Thomas’ death was tragedy beyond tragedy. He was a lover of animals, too. A man who appreciated them, who knew them intimately.

There was no talk of ending amateur racing at Cheltenham back when JT lost his life.

Perhaps the BHA thinks all horses should be left to roam as the wild animals they otherwise would be in a utopia where no such thing as mishap or mortality exists.


Thankfully, in Ireland we have sensible people running the sport. The Irish Horse Racing Regulatory Body is, of course, imperfect but hardly ever gets it wrong in such matters because we realise what horses are.

One high-ranking IHRB member admitted to me yesterday that he was utterly baffled by the BHA ruling. Nicky Henderson went a step farther, suggesting that the authorities were effectively pursuing a road towards the outright banning of racing in Britain.

He is not exaggerating. Nor was Tony McCoy, who called it “indefensible” on ITV. McCoy was being nice.

Back to why we are over here – to watch racing – and if Martin Brassil and Mark Walsh are a match made in heaven, little is said in heaven.

As Andrew McNamara – first cousin of JT – said after a photo emerged of Liz Hurley embracing Walsh on Tuesday, “knowing Walshey it wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve been going out for a few years, he’d tell ya nothing that fella.”

He knows how to ride though, scoring on Espoir D’Allen on Tuesday and City Island in Wednesday’s opener, a first Cheltenham winner for Brassil.

We had some cracking races on day two, with Topofthegame’s brave victory over Santini in the RSA Chase probably even more thrilling than the Champion Chase, in which Altior does what he often does: dangle for his rivals a chink of hope before flattening them in the closing stages.

He was afforded a beautifully warm and appreciative reception in the winners’ circle as he made it 18 wins from 18, as was the gallant third Sceau Royal, who was in-running favourite at one stage before his effort bottomed out.

Altior might even be less remarkable than Tiger Roll, who made it four Festival wins (three different races) in the cross-country event, five years after he won the Triumph Hurdle. He got Michael O’Leary and Gordon Elliott off the mark for the week.

“Tiger Roll is a legend,” said a relieved Elliott. “He’s become a Cheltenham Festival immortal!”, roared commentator Ian Bartlett as the diminutive terrier bounded 20 lengths clear.

This handy horse, who has become one of the most popular in training, is a freak: the experts will tell you that he is in no way designed for the obstacles he endured in yesterday’s unique test.

He earned a roar from the audience to rival Altior’s despite running in a madcap race that many deem an irrelevance. Rider Keith Donoghoe starves himself to ride him and is several stones below his natural weight.

Oh Tiger Roll, oh Keith Donoghue. Won’t you please think of your welfare!

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