Racehorse deaths at highest level since 2014, according to BHA figures

A general view of the field racing during the 2017 Gold Cup in front of the stands at Cheltenham racecourse
Seven horses died as a result of injuries sustained at last year's Cheltenham Festival

The number of horse deaths on British racecourses has reached its highest level since 2014.

Figures from the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) show that of 93,004 runners last year, 202 died - which bucked the general downward trend.

The rate of 0.22 per cent is the same as recorded in 2014. In 2017, there were 167 from 91,360 runners (0.18%).

A review into deaths at last year's Cheltenham Festival warned welfare issues threaten the sport's future.

Seven horses died as a result of injuries sustained at the four-day meeting.

One of them - Melrose Boy - was owned by Paul and Clare Rooney, who told trainers they do not want their horses to race at the course.

They are said to be concerned the home of jump racing could pose a greater risk of injury to their horses, although other owners have supported the track.

Extra veterinary checks, alterations to some race conditions and a major project to study faller rates are among 17 recommendations from the review.

While the fatality rate is 0.22% per runner, it is higher at 1.049% per horse - 202 out of 19,249 individual horses - because most run more than once a year.

'We must stay ahead of public opinion' - BHA

Despite overall trends pointing to improved safety rates, racecourse safety must be taken seriously, said BHA chief regulatory officer Brant Dunshea, who called for the sport to "raise our ambitions in this area".

"Government has publicly said as much, and we must consider the risk to the long-term future of the sport should equine injuries lead to public perception of the sport changing," he said.

"We must stay ahead of public opinion, and we cannot simply regulate our way to success - we all need to work together on this issue."

British racing's fatality rate has been steadily decreasing over the last 20 years, says the BHA, and has reduced from over 0.3% in the period around 1997-1998 to the low of 0.18% in 2015 and 2017.

It claims the best measure of fatality rates is to use five-year rolling averages rather than single-year figures because they are less likely to fluctuate and provide a more accurate interpretation of the trend. The five-year data shows that the existing rate is 0.2%.

British Horseracing Authority

Controversial stronger deterrents to jockeys breaching the whip rules in British racing are on the horizon, the BBC revealed last month.

Tougher penalties in big races are likely to be introduced to improve horse racing's public image over welfare.

Nick Rust, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, said there were "no firm timelines" for changes, but it is understood senior figures in racing are preparing for a possible ban on the use of the whip within three years.

New whip guidelines were introduced in 2011 limiting the amount of times the whip can be used in a race to seven on the flat and eight over jumps.

Since then the number of rule breaches annually by jockeys has halved on average - falling from a total of more than 1,000 to nearer 500 last year.

Many within racing regard whip use as something of a red herring in relation to racehorse welfare, with the deaths of horses a far bigger issue.

Racing insiders point to research that shows modern air-cushioned whips do not hurt horses, but concede there is a perception issue over their use.

No horses have died in the last six runnings of the Grand National at Aintree after safety improvements were made, although four horses were fatally injured at one meeting last month - at Musselburgh in Scotland.

Musselburgh was later deemed to be safe for racing following an inspection by the BHA, which said the four incidents were unrelated.


Cornelius Lysaght, BBC racing correspondent

These numbers don't represent anything like a spike, and the trend remains downward, but still they intensify the pressure at a sensitive time six weeks to the day before the start of the showpiece Cheltenham Festival in March.

That event has been at the centre of welfare concerns since seven fatalities at, or after, the last one

A number of extra safety measures are scheduled to be in place for this season's Festival, but there is no magic wand in a dangerous sport - the authority will be hoping that they make a difference.

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