Tragic day at Newbury races as two horses die

Eyewitness account: Neil Clark describes a black day for British racing

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 07:37 ON Sun 13 Feb 2011

The thousands who piled into Newbury racecourse yesterday - myself included - were looking forward to watching some top quality racing on one of the most prestigious days in the National Hunt calendar. None of us could have predicted we would witness one of the most appalling tragedies ever seen on a racecourse.

A packed crowd was waiting to get a look of the runners in the parade ring before the first race at 1.20pm when one of the horses, Marching Song, reared up and then collapsed to the ground. A few seconds later, the horse following him, Fenix Two, did exactly the same thing. Another horse, Kid Cassidy, crumbled to his knees on entering the paddock, while a fourth, The Merry Giant, also wobbled and went down to his hind legs.

Marching Song and Fenix Two were quickly pronounced dead. Kid Cassidy and The Merry Giant survived.

Startled race-goers could not believe what they had witnessed. Someone said he thought the horses may have been hit with a stun gun. Another put forward the theory that they had been poisoned. As the seven remaining horses went down to the start, green tarpaulins were hauled over the bodies of the dead animals. The scene was more like an 18th century battlefield than a 21st century racetrack.

By this time the race had finished, a consensus view had emerged that the horses had somehow been electrocuted. Jonjo O’Neill, trainer of Fenix Two, described to me the shock of seeing his horse rear up and then collapse. "He was perfectly healthy. It was like he was stuck to the ground. It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my life."

Racecourse vet Tom Campbell said he was "suspicious of an electrical shock" being the cause of death of O’Neill’s horse. The stable-lad who was with Marching Song also claimed that he had received electric shocks from the horse's body. Unconfirmed reports stated that the horses who did take part in the race returned with burn marks in their mouths - indicating that all the horses who entered the parade ring received some form of electric shock.

If the horses were electrocuted, then how did it happen? I walked round the paddock shortly after the horses went down to the start and saw no cables above ground cables. But it seems there could have been a cable under the ground - thought to date from the early 1990s. The horses killed were wearing metal shoes - and in any case four-legged animals are more likely to be severely affected by electric shocks than humans.

Soon word was spreading around the track that earlier in the week both the paddock and the racecourse itself had been aerated, with spikes driven into the ground, and that those doing the work could have accidentally cut an underground cable.

If that’s the case, then of course recent heavy rainfalls would only have made the situation worse, with water helping to conduct the electricity a lot more easily. Unbeknown to anyone, the peaceful-looking Newbury paddock was actually a death-trap, with the unfortunate horses in the 1.20 simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After the first race, with the cause of death still a mystery, the rest of the meeting was abandoned. But paying refunds for those who attended will be the least of Newbury’s problems. If cut cables are to blame, then the course will need to conduct a thorough examination before another race meeting can be held there.

Moreover, the racecourse could be subject to sizeable compensation claims from the owners of the horses affected. Two of the horses, Fenix Two who died, and Kid Cassidy, who was withdrawn after falling to his knees, were owned by leading owner JP McManus. Owners know that horse-racing, and in particular jump racing, is a high-risk sport, but they don’t expect their horses to be killed in the paddock of one of the top tracks in the world.

As bad as things were for Newbury yesterday, they could have been even worse. Later races were due to feature such top quality horses as last year's Grand National winner Don’t Push It, and the Sir Alex Ferguson-owned Gold Cup hope What a Friend.

Trainer Nicky Henderson described the day’s events as "the most horrific thing I think I have seen. I have been racing for 33 years and I have never seen anything like it. It was nearly a Dick Francis novel". · 

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