So the dust has settled slightly but Saturday’s Grand National caused a bit of a stir. My knowledge of horse racing is somewhat limited – I know the idea is to get over fences and reach the line first and what’s more the rider needs to stay on his steed. What has caused the furore is the “death” of horses in this race. But let’s examine this a little more.
In this year’s National 2 horses “died” after falling at fences. In both cases the horses broke legs. The falls were described as “fatal” in many places. Look in a bit more detail though and you’ll see reference to the horses being “destroyed”. That’s quite a jump, if you excuse the pun. Why should a broken leg be so bad that a horse has to be destroyed?
Let’s put it another way. In this year’s Tour of Flanders, Fabian Cancellara “fell” in the feedzone – cycling’s nearest equivalent to the melee of Beechers Brook – breaking his collarbone in four places, ending his races and potentially placing his season’s aims in jeopardy. Was the green screen brought out on the Flemish roads whilst Spartacus was “put out of his misery”? No. Once helped off the tarmac he was flown back to Switzerland, operated on and allegedly back on the bike on a static trainer by Tuesday. A slight difference as you can see.
The debate about the Grand National is then not simply the one propagated in the media about the course and its obstacles. The ease with which the decision is made to put down/destroy a horse has failed to feature in this debate. A leg break requires attention and care but should not be fatal, begging the question that this decision is one of cost and value rather than welfare. Yet even this seems illogical given that one of the horses involved was Synchronised, winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and a horse with supposed pedigree. Why destroy a horse that has the potential to be bred and earn further money? The mind boggles.
What this episode shows is that the focus of so many debates is misplaced. In this case focussing on the features of the race course without sufficient acknowledgement of the cost driven decisions of owners drives a skewed set of solutions to remedy the problem.
But deeper still it indicates the focus on costs over welfare. JP McManus may be devestated at the loss of his horse, but he had a choice. Whilst he viewed it solely for making money he chose to cut his losses. Whilst in some walks of life a broken metatarsal is pampered and cosseted, where in others more debilitating problems – especially stress and depression – are at best overlooked and at worst seen as weaknesses. Unfortunately in so many cases it comes down to whether the benefits outweigh the costs. It is all about asset management, a simple cost-benefit analysis. If the weakness is too costly, however short-sighted the decision might seem, the asset becomes a liability and it put down on the scrapheap. Welfare and alternative value is too often ignored. And whilst this is the case too many “assets” will be written off, consigned to the scrapheap. What does this mean in the longer-term?