National Hunt racing will return to Southwell on Friday, more than two months after the British Horseracing Authority took the highly unusual decision to suspend jumping at the course to investigate eight fatal injuries to horses there since 1 July. All of its chase fences have been at least slightly modified, with two singled out for more significant changes, but the investigation concluded that the tight, speed-favouring nature of the course was not a factor in the spate of fatalities.
Trainers and owners gave the track a vote of confidence this week when nearly 150 initial entries were received for seven races, including three contests over the chase course. Five of the eight horses killed at the track over the summer were running in chases, including Croco Bay, the winner of the Grand Annual Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2019.
The fences either side of the turn into Southwell’s home straight have received special attention, with a “shoulder” being added to the front of the fence to encourage horses to shape their jumps more accurately. The first fence in the home straight, meanwhile, has been “re-sited as far from the bottom bend as is feasible”.
The BHA’s investigation focused its attention on chase events after an analysis of faller rates in hurdles – responsible for two of the eight fatal injuries – showed that Southwell’s rate was in long-term decline. It also concluded that despite Southwell staging several extra meetings over the summer compared to recent years, having taken over fixtures originally scheduled for tracks, “no evidence could be found to attribute the condition of the ground as a cause of the fatalities”.
There was evidence, however, that the higher number of fixtures had led to a higher number of low-ability horses – which are more likely to make mistakes or fall – running at the course. As a result, the report recommends that “the volume of fixtures from July to September should be considered”, and also that changes should be made to Southwell’s programme “to ensure a more even spread through all levels of ability”.
Final declarations for the meeting – for which the going is currently good, good-to-soft in places – will be made on Wednesday morning, but 142 five-day entries suggest “confidence in the course and the work that’s been done among trainers and owners,” Robin Mounsey, the BHA’s head of media, said on Tuesday.
“You can never entirely rule out accidents happening,” Mounsey added, “and you also can’t jump to conclusions [when they do]. That’s why we use long-term data and trends rather than basing it too much on short-term clusters of incidents, but when a course is at or near the top over three or four years, then we will look at it.
“Southwell was thrust into the spotlight because we stopped racing there and we said we were looking at it, but there are other occasions where we look at a racecourse and make changes along the lines of those at Southwell. It’s a constant process of assessment and improvement.”