DURBAN – The horse racing industry is under siege from animal rights activists internationally, after 493 horses in the US and Canada died last year from injuries or were euthanised.
This averages out at almost 10 horses a week.
Whipping, drugging, surfaces and weather have been labelled as the cause of deaths.
Since late December, nearly 24 thoroughbreds have died racing or during training at California’s Santa Anita Park. This has put the spotlight on the treatment of horses worldwide.
With Africa’s greatest horse race – the Vodacom Durban July – taking place at Greyville this Saturday, these alarming death stats are compared with South Africa’s Sport of Kings.
Since 1 August 2018, out of 37 749 horses, SA had 19 breakdowns, which counts to 5%.
Unlike in the US, the reasons for breakdowns in SA are well known and taken care of.
This was confirmed by Arnold Hyde, the racing control executive of the National Horseracing Authority of Southern Africa (NHRA).
Commenting on the Santa Anita crisis, Hyde said: “We are very saddened and shocked by the unfortunate situation that happened at Santa Anita. It’s a very difficult thing, and we hope they’ll find the reason for breakdowns fast.
“In SA, horses’ welfare comes first. Without horses the industry is nothing. Like in any other sporting code, horses aren’t allowed to race under the influence of any banned substances.
“We treat our horses with respect and love like human athletes,” he added.
Compared to SA tracks, American dirt tracks comprise of a hardened level base, on top of which approximately 110mm of sand, mixed with a specially sourced clay, is laid.
When the weather is stable these tracks are fairly safe to race on.
They are packed down on race days with specialised equipment designed to make the surface firm, especially when slight or moderate precipitation occurs or controlled irrigation is applied to it.
However, the problem is that many of their racing jurisdictions have extreme rainfall, which then turns the surface into slop.
When horses gallop over this, they generally displace sufficient material whereby their feet come into contact with the hard underlying base.
This places immense strain on the legs, due to excessive jarring and slippage of the foot when in contact with the underlying hard base and increases the risk of catastrophic injury.
Tony Rivalland, chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Trainers Association, blamed the surfaces and bad weather as the cause of deaths in Santa Anita. He said SA has kinder racing surfaces.
“Our racing surfaces are maintained in the best possible conditions at all times. Also the statistics of catastrophic breakdown are minimal compared to USA. Most races are staged on dirt in America. Only 20% of their racing is staged on grass.
“In contrast, most of our racing takes place on grass surfaces, with about 76 meetings per annum in SA being raced on a synthetic surface called polytrack.
We are live at the #VDJ2019 Gallops at Greyville Racecourse - Do it Again in fine form as he gallops past the home straight for the Vodacom Durban July being run here on Sat 6 July. pic.twitter.com/DYxC6nt0YN
“The synthetic surface is a very consistent surface comprising of high grade, uniform silica sand, mixed with a wax binder, specially selected fibre and rubber chips, and laid on an even surface at a depth of 150mm.
“The underlying surface is designed to remove water quickly from the surface material during heavy rainfall, making it absolutely safe to race on in any weather conditions. It is designed to reduce compaction and is very consistent in nature, a prerequisite for safety,” said Rivalland.
A few years ago, Greyville installed a polytrack. On Vodacom Durban July day, races will be run on grass and polytrack. The main race and other top races will be run on grass.
Continued Rivalland: “Grass tracks are the traditional and preferred surface in SA and most of the Antipodes and European countries. Horses prefer a consistent surface with a small amount of give.”