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Sentimentality jars with true origins of our sport.

Byline: Sue Montgomery

For all the rise in attendance figures published this week, it must be apparent to all but the most determined ostriches that racing, particularly jump racing, is becoming marginalised in the hearts and minds of the greater public. The reasons are complex but, broadly, are a function of social history and changing attitudes. And those are fearsome groundswells to withstand.

Society is now two, maybe three, generations away from the time when working horses were an everyday sight, a matter-of-fact part of the fabric of life in both towns and the country, when the cavalry regiments were an integral part of the army, when a child grew up accepting livestock as stock and not as pets.

That knowledge is being eroded in favour of an anthropomorphic view of animals in general and, in the case of problems facing our sport and industry, horses in particular. Huge strides have been made by humane organisations in the removal of brutality from the treatment of animals and, in our little world, by the sport's authorities in clamping down on, for example, unpleasant public filletings up the Cheltenham hill. But the line between concerns about animal welfare and animal rights is fine and delicate, and becoming blurred.

Animals have every entitlement to be treated in a manner appropriate to their kind. The thoroughbred is a horse developed by judicious genetic selection over 300 years for our leisure and pleasure. It is the F1 end of the family equidae, but it is still a horse, with all the traits and instincts of the species. In racing, we play on those innate responses, primarily the fear factor. In the wild, a horse depends on its ability to flee at speed for survival, and what triggers that flight response is alarm in the face of a predator.

Just as kittens play-pounce, young horses hone their life skills by play-running, but always within themselves. The only time they would voluntarily go through the discomfort, or even pain, barrier is for real, when they are running in fear of their lives. So, to stimulate that primeval reaction to produce extra effort under pressure in the artificiality of a race, the jockey utilises the tools at his disposal. The things that frighten horses are sudden pain, sudden movement and sudden noise, all presages of an attack.

This is why a jockey will wield or wave his stick and shout at his mount in a finish. It may sound odd to condone such actions but it should not. The human race sees a whip as a weapon of punishment. Horses do not view it as such; correctly applied in a race, it is a goad, well within acceptable parameters of treatment, for galloping in a herd, running from danger - it's what horses do. Yes, a stick can be used reprehensibly; for instance, to beat a horse up in a confined space, from which there was no recourse to flight, would inflict not only physical but uncomprehending mental pain. But equally, there would be a case for one educated blow in a stable. Horses can be dangerously aggressive and a well-timed intimation that the human is the alpha part of the equation - the sort of message that the herd leader would pass on with teeth or hooves - can save a lot of grief.

It is a matter of perspective and knowledge. Of course, there are ignorant brutes in racing but the sport per se, even given that equine death is part and parcel of it, is not cruel in the mawkish sense of the word prevalent today. Keeping a half-starved pony in a ragwort-infested paddock is cruel. The live transport of slaughter-bound horses and ponies is cruel and, instead of vilifying Tony McCoy's educated treatment of Deano's Beeno, those concerned about real cruelty should log on to www.ilph.org before Sunday and do their bit to try to prevent a resumption of live exports from Britain.

On a lighter note, does anyone remember Johnny Stubbs, a character in one of the weekly children's comics of yore? He first appeared in a tale called The Boy Who Sings To Horses, which had a predictable gipsy-lad-with-gift plot. He was some rider; he won the Derby on Reckless and then weight problems must have kicked in because he took a Grand National on Brownstone. It would probably be politically incorrect today, wouldn't it? A story for kids from the world of racing with a jockey as the hero.

nSue Montgomery is a freelance contributor to The Independent and Independent On Sunday

nPaul Haigh is on holiday
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 26, 2004
Words:765
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