What fate awaits a racehorse once its career is over? Claire Smith meets Scotland’s leading National Hunt trainer and her famous partner whose love for their horses doesn’t end at the finishing line
AFTER two horses died in the Grand National this year Lucinda Russell found herself in an interview facing three angry animal rights activists who wanted racing to be banned for good.
Among the accusations thrown at her was that trainers like her are only interested in racing animals while they are able to compete – and that after a thoroughbred’s racing life is over, the horses are shot.
Scotland’s biggest and most successful racehorse trainer, who works alongside her partner, former champion jockey Peter Scudamore, at her raceyard in Milnathort, becomes visibly upset when remembering the angry words that were thrown at her.
“It is a touchy subject,” she says. “I get quite upset about it. But I have been training horses for 17 years and I have never had a healthy horse shot.”
It is a beautiful day in Perth and Kinross and the scene at Arlary House looks idyllic. Peacocks are strutting on the lawn of the big house, there are lots of dogs scampering around and beautiful thoroughbred horses are being led in and out of the stables by very fit-looking, rosy-cheeked young men and women. But get up closer and you begin to realise the intensity of the training.
Racehorses are typically worked for one and a half hours a day – and the pace is demanding – “to train them to be fit like any athlete”. Horses, covered with sweat, jump over barrels, and in a nearby field two others fly round a circuit, taking on jump after jump. There is a circle of deep sand where they run – just as track athletes train on sand dunes – while several horses use the creaking metal walking machine, cooling down after a bout of heavy training.
Ms Russell explains that there are two types of racehorses – those which run on the Flat and others, known as National Hunt horses, which run over jumps. “This is predominantly a jumps yard,” she adds.
Russell got into training after being an eventer, who was asked to look after horses for other people, and jokes that she has “ruined my parent’s lovely country house by putting up all these sheds”. Currently there are 95 horses in training at Arlary House – with various owners. During their racing careers they can each be bought and sold for anything up to £500,000. The problem comes afterwards. Horses which race on the Flat typically have a racing life of some three years, while National Hunt horses race for 11. There is a perception that racehorses are too nervy and highly strung to become pleasure horses. But increasingly former racehorses are finding a new lease of life. Rather than being killed – or put out to grass – these elite and valuable animals can be retrained for trekking, eventing or even adopted as family pets.
Russell shakes off the suggestion that former racehorses are difficult to retrain. “It is just like a person that has been in the army. Their lives have always been regimented. In order for them to become a pleasure horse you don’t want them to be quite as fit. You have to let them get a bit fat. It depends on the character of the horse. Some do find that difficult. You just want them to chill out and relax a bit more.”
Despite the frantic and demanding pace of her racing life, Russell is always on the look-out for prospective owners. “I feel a responsibility for the horses in our care once they have finished training. We have a section of our website for horses that are ready to be rehomed.”
Unlike their value while actively racing, retired racehorses can be bought for a relative pittance. “I often say to owners I don’t think they should ask for money. I think the animal should be given away or put out on loan. If they do want to sell them on it should be for a nominal fee – say £500 to £2000. The most important thing is that they are being looked after properly.”
Walking round the training yard she points out various animals. “That one is a bit lazy. That one is always getting into trouble. That one is fantastic – we are very excited about him.”
Understanding the nature of the retiring racehorse is one of the keys to finding the right home for them. “Some can go on to compete in a different class, some can become eventers, some might like to walk along roads, some will hunt and there are some who might want to stand in a field,” she explains.
In recent years there has been an increasing trend for former racehorses to compete in eventing and point-to-points – with special events at horse trials for these retired athletes of the animal world.
At the Gillespie Macandrew Hopetoun Horse Trials at Hopetoun House in South Queensferry this weekend, eventing, showjumping and dressage are among the planned disciplines. There will be eight former racehorses among the competitors at the event.
Ian Stark, former Olympian and the designer of the course, said: “We are delighted to have ex-racehorses amongst the line-up. Ex-racehorses have a huge amount to give once their racing career is over and many go on to be successful in other equestrian disciplines as this weekend will demonstrate.
“Ex-racehorses are used to the atmosphere of an event – flags waving, loudspeakers and lots of people – this will be a huge advantage. We are pleased to showcase at the Hopetoun Horse Trials that racehorses can and do have a career after racing and would urge event riders to consider ex-racehorses when looking for their next eventing horse.”
Back at Arlary House, Peter Scudamore, who has emerged from the training yard, says he is delighted to see that times and attitudes have changed. “I have judged at Hopetoun and it is lovely to see horses and riders so happy together.” He believes there has been a growing awareness of the need for former racehorses to find a new lease of life. “I think in the past we were a bit ignorant. I think it is not something I was aware of a few years ago. I suppose it comes down to a moral issue of what we should do with these horses – in that we do breed them.”
The former jockey is not sentimental – but is passionate the centuries-old relationship should not be curtailed. “I am not sure standing in a field being rained on is good for them, but I think they do like social interaction – and I think they like humans,” he says. “Our nation was built on the back of a horse. If we stop racing horses and breeding horses we will lose that skill.”