The speed-favouring layout of Southwell racecourse is likely to be at the centre of the discussion when racing’s ruling body considers the troubling number of equine fatalities at the East Midlands track. Six horses have sustained fatal injuries there since late July, prompting an investigation by the British Horseracing Authority.
The trainers of those six have spoken to the Guardian and been supportive of Southwell’s groundstaff for the effort made to provide a safe racing surface. But two suggested there might be some inherent danger in using such a tight track for summer jump racing, leading to horses going very fast and at additional risk if they happen to fall.
“The layout of the track lends itself to speed, doesn’t it?” mused Micky Hammond, whose Swarez died after a novice chase fall last week. “It’s a very flat, easy track, horses are going as quick as they can go. It’s a track they’ve chosen, in this Covid summer, to use. I suppose, with the fatalities, it might not have been the right track to choose.
“I’m not a great fan of summer jumping anyway. I love my Newcastles, Hexhams, Sedgefields in the middle of winter, on proper ground. I preferred when we had the nine weeks off in the summer, going back to my jockeying days. It happened for a reason.”
His thoughts were echoed by Nigel Hawke, whose Avarchie broke a shoulder in a hurdles fall. “It’s a fast, flat track,” he said. “This was a two-mile hurdle race, horses are in top gear, which is great when they’re right [as they meet an obstacle] but when they’re wrong, they’re a little bit committed.
“And that’s why you’re always going to have casualties at a track like this because a lot of these horses are in top gear all the way. We had this trouble at Aintree one year when the ground got very fast. These tracks, when the ground dries out a little bit, they become fast.”
Bad luck appears to have been a factor. Hammond believes Swarez was injured not by the fall but by a horse who ran into him as he was trying to rise. Nicky Richards, whose Booyakasha could not be saved after sustaining a leg injury, believes the horse was startled when birch was knocked out of a fence by another runner.
The most high-profile casualty has been Croco Bay, a former Cheltenham Festival winner who broke a shoulder when hitting an early fence at Southwell last month. “
They do a fantastic job, as good a job as they could. But I’m afraid these things happen,” said Richards.
Southwell’s track has been kept busy since jump racing resumed on 1 July, staging seven fixtures with a total of 613 runners. A fatality rate of 1% is more than double the average in British jump racing, which has been steady at 0.39% in recent years, according to BHA figures.
A Southwell official said no comment could be offered as discussions with the BHA are due to begin this week. The BHA has said it will work with the racecourse to investigate the circumstances around the fatalities to see if there were any common factors.