Tomorrow's a big day in England. The gates to the Cheltenham Festival will open, and millions of British, Irish and international racing fans who can't squeeze through the gates will spend hours watching the world's premier National Hunt (what we would call steeplechasing, though it's not exactly the same) racing meet on television. In addition to the famous Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, the meet has races for amateur riders and is a real extravaganza for enthusiasts of jump racing and risk-taking.
In 2006, the Festival, which is located in Cheltenham Spa in Gloucestershire, west of London, was marred by tragedy: nine horses died during the races last year.
As the majority of injuries and deaths in 2006 took place in hurdle races, new "headless" or bracketed hurdles have been installed. They have a lower wooden structure than the standard hurdles. Horses' hooves are unlikely to make contact with the hard wood jump frame, making the jumps less likely to cause injury.
"Headless" or bracketed hurdles are an approved construction of hurdles where the protruding (but still padded) uprights are slightly reduced by 2 - 2? inches (to about 1 - 1? inches). This is achieved by sitting the top horizontal bar of the hurdle in a bracket rather than it being morticed directly into the upright.
Although the heads of hurdles could not be identified as a direct cause of deaths, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) approves the new jumps and is confident that they will make it safer for horses.
"Hurdling, by its very nature, is jumping at speed," wrote RSPCA consultant veterinarian David Muir. "Any fall is, therefore, likely to be hazardous. The use of headless hurdles is one way to prevent contact between the fast moving hooves of the horse and the solid jump structure."
Horses will also be inspected this year by a veterinarian to make sure they are fit to run in the high profile races.
RSPCA equine consultant David Muir said, "The death of one horse is unacceptable and we were shocked by what happened at Cheltenham last year. We looked very carefully at what happened to see how animal welfare could be improved. We believe the course is now safer, but horses may still be injured or killed during this year's event.
"We urge race organisers, owners and trainers to make equine welfare a top priority. Owners and trainers of horses with pre-existing conditions should think carefully before entering. We hope the new vet checks before some races will mean fewer fatalities."
Cheltenham Festival culminates on Friday with the Gold Cup.