For all the excitement and drama of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, there was still plenty of sadness in that even horses died due to injuries suffered at the meeting.
That forced festival organisers, and the wider racing community as a whole, to question whether enough was being done to protect the safety of the horses involved.
A thorough investigation from the British Horseracing Authority followed, and they delivered a dossier of improvements that could be introduced to improve conditions at the Prestbury Park track.
The BHA’s spokesman, Brant Dunshea, told the BBC: “We must do everything we can to mitigate the risk of there being injuries and fatalities.”
“The Festival and jump racing continue to be much-loved and of course, there are always risks. We don’t believe you can eliminate them all, but we are prepared to do whatever is required to improve safety and continually drive the number of fallers down.”
With Cheltenham Festival 2019 getting underway on Tuesday, those measures will be put to the test for the very first time.
Here are some of the new safety rules that, fingers crossed, will help to eradicate fatalities in what should be a celebration of elite-level National Hunt racing.
It’s staggering that this measure wasn’t implemented years ago, but now all runners at Cheltenham will be subject to a veterinary check prior to running.
Last year, it is believed that only 100 of the 460 or so runners were checked, but in 2019 a specialist team of vets will be on hand each day of the festival from 07:30 onwards, to ensure there isn’t a backlog of horses waiting to be examined.
The idea is to identify horses that have a clear health issue which could increase their of suffering a fatal injury, with checks for lameness high on the agenda.
They will ask for horses to be trotted towards them and away from them, with particular attention paid to joints and tendons. Each examination will take between two and ten minutes.
In an innovative move, trainers have been asked to submit videos to the BHA of any of their horses that have an unusual running style.
They will then assess whether that this due to an unorthodox gait or posture, or whether there may be an underlying health reason for the unusual motion.
“Trainers are being asked to provide details of any horse that might be an awkward mover and they have been sharing videos [of the horses] in their natural environments, doing trot-ups,” Dunshea confirmed. “They could not have been more collaborative.”
Walking the Course
Many experienced jockeys know both the Old and New Courses at Prestbury Park like the back of their hand.
But for newer riders, the nuances of the tracks can come as something of a shock, and with the big race atmosphere building the tension there can be mistakes that prove detrimental to a horse’s welfare.
And so a new safety measure has been introduced where a jockey that has not ridden at Cheltenham since the start of the previous season – or who has less than 25 rides at the course in their career – will be made to walk the course with one of the BHA’s ‘jockey coaches’.
Estimates put this at around 30 riders per day, with the Professional Jockeys’ Association said to support a ‘sensible, practical’ move.
Changes to the Grand Annual Chase
The traditional curtain-call of the Cheltenham Festival is the Grand Annual Chase, a two-mile steeplechase that occurs at the end of a hectic four-day schedule of racing.
Last year, three horses died during or after the Grand Annual, and so changes have been made to prevent a similar scenario occurring again.
The most pertinent one is that the field size has been reduced from 24 to 20, which will hopefully minimise the risk to those involved.
After mainstream broadcast go off air, there is usually one more race at the festival: the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
In 2019, more experienced jockeys will be utilised so that the numbers of youngsters with their associated weight allowance are minimised.