Prominent National Hunt owners Paul and Clare Rooney are set to withhold their horses from future Cheltenham Racecourse events, including the Festival in March, and are encouraging other owners to do the same.
The Rooneys, owners of If The Cap Fits, Go Conquer and The Last Samuri among others, are known to be concerned that jumping’s HQ may be posing a health risk to runners after their Starchitect broke a leg at the December meeting and had to be destroyed.
Fellow leading owner Jared Sullivan has made his point publicly that the Rooneys can do as they wish with their string and that people should simply respect their decision and stay out of the debate, which essentially is between them and the owners of the track who incidentally are due to speak directly to the couple soon.
Racing fans on social media are divided over this issue, some claiming like Sullivan that as their horses belong to them and they pay the bills they can do as they wish, some support them outright while others think they are being hasty and have launched vehement defences of Cheltenham and its safety record.
For those who think the couple will be no great miss however think again; the Rooney’s sit second in the British jump owners’ championship behind JP McManus and not having their string attend in March would be a blow to the sport.
The argument began to rage after last year’s Festival during which a total of seven horses died, prompting a review by the governing body and leading to many recommendations coming forward regarding field sizes, veterinary visits and alterations to the conditions of some races.
It seems fair enough that owners who genuinely believe any factor, in this case the layout or running of a particular track, may pose a health risk to their animals have the right to withdraw their horses from future events at such a venue.
We cannot ignore though the points made by some knowledgeable fans that see some hypocrisy in all this. Musselburgh for example faced a BHA inspection after four deaths occurred in one meeting and it seems the Rooneys are still happy to send horses there.
A point that must be posed, no doubt to the chagrin of many fans, is that National Hunt supporters have often been more vociferous and in the recent political climate also more defensive about their sport than Flat racing fans.
True, horses can break down even galloping but the fact is they mostly die during NH racing because of the fact they jump at pace and so anything that can be done to make this practice safer should be encouraged.
Case in point the Grand National which always had the most notorious fences in all of jumps racing; following similar reviews into horse welfare over the years the big one at Aintree has been made safer (softer in the eyes of some diehards), resulting in not a single death in the National for coming up to seven years.
Has that race been downgraded in the eyes of the public since the safety changes? Absolutely not and it seems possible we may look back at the Rooneys’ decision in a few years and see them as flag bearers for positive change.