The British Horseracing Authority is taking urgent steps to improve the way Thoroughbreds are tracked throughout their lives as traceability becomes a top priority in the sport’s wellbeing strategy.
Uncomfortable questions were raised on Monday night for horse racing in both Britain, but especially Ireland, by The Dark Side of Racing, a BBC Panorama investigation that claimed around 4,000 Thoroughbreds had been slaughtered in slaughterhouses since 2019.
The program focused on harrowing scenes captured by hidden cameras set up by campaign group Animal Aid at the Drury and Sons slaughterhouse in Wiltshire, which showed violations of rules designed to protect animals from unnecessary suffering.
High Expectations (above) was one of three horses once trained by Gordon Elliott to end up in the slaughterhouse
The program also made allegations of tampering with racehorse-identifying microchips to circumvent regulations on horse meat reaching the human food chain.
Drury and Sons told Panorama: ‘We take great care in maintaining high welfare conditions and do not accept any form of animal cruelty. All horses are humanely destroyed and if problems do arise, we take swift action to assess and correct.’
Regulations on slaughterhouses fall under the jurisdiction of the Food Standards Agency.
But the BHA admitted there are gaps in their data on what happens to horses between the mandatory registration of foals within 30 days of birth and the number of horses entering a stable, and what happens to horses when they leave training. .
Commenting on the program, the BHA said it would support the FSA if it decides that the photos of alleged abuse of horses at the slaughterhouse require further investigation.
In a statement, the BHA added: “Nobody in racing, and no one who loves horses, wants them to cause distress or suffering at the end of their lives.
“If there has been a deviation from approved slaughter practices and the welfare of the horses involved has been compromised, it is important that this is addressed as a matter of urgency.
“This includes transporting horses long distances to a slaughterhouse, especially if they have injuries, which is not acceptable under UK racing industry guidelines for euthanasia.”
The BHA and other UK racing industry leaders, including the independently chaired Horse Welfare Board, will meet on Tuesday to further discuss the issues raised by this program. She will also be in contact with colleagues in Ireland.
Improving the traceability of a Thoroughbred throughout its career was named as a “key priority” by the independent Horse Welfare Board in early 2020.
All Thoroughbreds are microchipped and have horse passports – a digital version has just been rolled out – but the HWB admitted there are “significant gaps in the industry’s knowledge of the whereabouts of Thoroughbreds bred to race.”
Monday night’s program focused heavily on the Irish racing industry and its links to the slaughterhouse.
Unsurprisingly, trainer Gordon Elliott drew attention, given the bad publicity he garnered for the sport when a photo of him smiling on a dead horse at a gallop landed him a six-month suspension in March.
The program highlighted three horses once trained by Elliott that ended up in the slaughterhouse – High Expectations, Kiss Me Kayf and Vyta Du Roc.
Elliott told the program that “None of those animals were sent to the slaughterhouse by me,” adding that the horses had stopped racing due to an injury and were no longer under his care or ownership.
Two of the horses, High Expectations and Kiss Me Kayf, had been sent to a horse dealer “to be rehomed if possible, and if not, to be humanely euthanized in accordance with regulations.”
Elliott was banned from racing in March after being photographed sitting on a dead horse
He said he gave the third horse to another rider as requested by the owner.
The other trainer mentioned in the Panorama was Gavin Cromwell. Beneficial Quest, who had been trained by him, also ended up at the slaughterhouse.
A Horse Racing Ireland spokesperson said there was no evidence that licensed individuals had broken racing rules.
No British trainer was named by Panorama, but the program did feature an interview with Mary Frances, chief executive of the Moorcroft Equine Rehabilitation Centre.
A total of £1.4m in funding is estimated to be invested each year in aftercare and related projects from racing and related funding sources, but Frances said more funding was needed for rehabilitation centers such as Moorcroft.
She added: ‘There is no doubt that money is available. It’s not a poor industry. Money is available, but there doesn’t seem to be an understanding or desire to spend the money where it’s needed.’
The BHA rejects suggestions that part of the problem is foal overproduction, pointing out that the number of 4,714 foals registered in 2020 is less than the number of 4,971 in 2001, despite an expansion of the racing program.
Racehorse Retraining (ROR), British Horseracing’s official charity for the welfare of retired racehorses, has over 9,000 horses in its database, but more than 70 percent of Thoroughbreds are rehomed through direct contact with an owner or trainer.
That’s where the data gaps need to be filled.
Last night’s program was steered by information from Animal Aid, which, according to its website, wants to “end all racing.” It clearly has an agenda.
The racing industry cannot be held responsible for the deplorable actions of some slaughterhouse workers.
But it needs to have more control over what it can control and more needs to be done. Last night’s program emphasized that.