In a 24-race career for Nicky Henderson between May 2014 and April 2019, Vyta Du Roc won seven races including the Grade Two Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot, two Grade Twos over hurdles and a handicap chase at Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day meeting in 2018. In all, he banked nearly £180,000 in prize money for his owners, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.
As a result of Monday evening’s Panorama investigation “The Dark Side Of Horse Racing”, we now also know that a short time after his first start under Rules for Gordon Elliott, in a cross-country event at Punchestown, Vyta Du Roc’s life was ended by a slaughterman’s bullet, in an abattoir near Swindon – many hours away by truck and ferry from his last home.
Munir and Souede told the programme in a statement that they were “shocked and furious” when they were informed that Vyta Du Roc had gone to the abattoir, as they “had taken appropriate steps to ensure that Vyta would be rehomed with an appropriate keeper.” Elliott, meanwhile, said that the horse had been given “to another rider as requested by its owner”, with no money changing hands.
The footage of the grey’s final moments – and those of several more horses including thoroughbred ex-racers – was shocking and disturbing for fans and non-followers of racing alike. And that’s as it should be. We will all be in a desperate place if images like these are ever met with a shrug of shoulders.
The fact that some ex-racehorses end their days in a slaughterhouse should not, of course, come as a great surprise to anyone. The RSPCA and World Horse Welfare, the two main equine welfare charities, both acknowledge that for some horses – thoroughbreds and non-thoroughbreds alike – humane euthanasia is, as WHW’s website puts it, “one of the most responsible decisions an owner can make when they cannot safeguard their horse’s future.” It adds that it “is often better to put a horse down in unfamiliar surroundings rather than to rehome unwisely and have them fall into the wrong hands.”
WHW, however, is an animal welfare organisation. The ethos of Animal Aid, which supplied the secretly-filmed footage to Panorama, is animal rights. Its ultimate aim is to prevent the use of animals by humans, full stop. Its primary interest in welfare issues is as a means to that end.
Perhaps this contributed to the fact that Monday’s programme was longer on shock value than on interrogation and detail. The programme-makers were aware, for instance, that 87% of thoroughbreds slaughtered at Drury & Sons abattoir in Swindon in 2019 – for practical purposes, the only abattoir in Great Britain which takes ex-racehorses – arrived from Ireland. In 2020, it was 88%.
These figures are astonishing when you bear in mind that there are 14,000 horses in training in Britain at any one time, and 20,000 that race over the course of each year. In Ireland, the latest equivalent figures were 4,552 and 9,248, and all of them are a long and expensive van and ferry journey away from Swindon.
Instead, Panorama was content to simply say that the “vast majority” of horses slaughtered at Drury & Sons had arrived from Ireland and leave it at that.
Panorama also claimed that 4,000 thoroughbreds were sent to abattoirs in Britain and Ireland in 2019 and 2020, or 2,000 annually. But since there are just two abattoirs in Ireland – in Kildare and Kilkenny – with a licence to accept thoroughbreds, and it is also fair to assume that very few British-based horses are sent for slaughter in Ireland, it seems likely that the total of ex-racers from British stables that end up in an abattoir is below even the 200 per year implied by the relative numbers at Drury & Sons.
More detailed analysis of the age and racing experience, if any, of the thoroughbreds sent for slaughter could shed some light on the reasons for this apparent disparity. Ireland’s breeding industry, for instance, is the biggest in Europe and third-largest in the world, with a foal crop of just over 8,500 in 2020. If it turns out that a significant number of the horses being slaughtered are not old or injured but simply surplus to requirements, what can be done to cut overproduction?
Of course, questions like these are largely irrelevant if you approach racing and breeding with an abolitionist, rights-based agenda. But for the sport’s regulators, both in Britain and Ireland, it is imperative to come up with convincing answers and continue to do so from one year to the next. That requires a significant investment of time, effort – such as the five-year plan, “A Life Well Lived”, launched by the Horse Welfare Board last February – and cash. The BHA’s reported investment of £1.4m a year in aftercare for ex-racehorses – about £350 for each of the 4,000 or so that leave training – feels woefully inadequate.
As Roly Owers, WHW’s chief executive, pointed out on Tuesday, said, Panorama’s programme “raises far bigger issues than what appear to be shocking practices of one abattoir – from breeding programmes to training regimes, to lack of regard for horse welfare during transport, to the integrity of our passport system and, therefore, the traceability of racehorses. The industry, from top to bottom, needs to sit up and take note.”
Panorama was designed to shock, and it succeeded. As the shock started to subside on Tuesday, James Given, the BHA’s director of equine health and welfare, said that the Authority and the Horse Welfare Board “are all clear that the transporting of horses from Ireland to be euthanised in Britain must stop.” If that turns out to be the first positive result of Monday’s programme, it will hopefully not be the last.