Horse racing is facing something of a reckoning in both the US and the UK due to the continued high rates of horse deaths as a result of injuries sustained or euthanasia following non-lethal but serious injuries.

Three horses were put down after Saturday’s (June 17) meeting at Wyoming Downs alone, as well as two a fortnight earlier at Belmont Park, both in the US. These have drawn further attention to the issue on that side of the Atlantic, which was brought into sharp focus at the start of June when Churchill Downs in Kentucky suspended racing to examine safety measures following 12 deaths in two months. Bill Carstanjen, the executive of Churchill Downs Incorporated no less, has called the situation “absolutely unacceptable.”

In February, meanwhile, at the UK’s prestigious Grand National Festival, three horses died during the three-day meeting. The Grand National race is a staple of British sport, with people who hardly ever bet on racing backing horses for the annual steeplechase. It is one of the longest-running horse racing events across Britain and Ireland, and year’s 175th annual edition saw the Irish-bred thoroughbred Corach Rambler pull away from the rest of the 39-horse field to win the historic race.

However, the event at Aintree Racecourse was not short of controversy as protests caused havoc at the event, and the death toll of horses participating in the meet’s flagship National Hunt race rose to 15 since the year 2000 when Hill Sixteen suffered a fatal injury at the first fence.

Animal rights campaigners aim not only to have this race canceled but in some cases to see horse racing totally banned. Across the three days of the Grand National Festival meeting, protestors took actions that included closing down the M57 motorway near Aintree by gluing themselves to the road and trying to stop the race itself by attempting to invade the racecourse.

The attempt failed, but the race was delayed by 14 minutes which subsequently disturbed the horses. This was significant in the death of Hill Sixteen, according to the horse’s trainer Sandy Thomson. With the deaths of two other horses at the prestigious event, the race organizers have said they will continue looking to make the race as safe as possible while making the event a real test for both the horses and the jockeys.

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Looking at the event’s media landscape, GlobalData’s Intelligence Centre indicates that 27 separate deals were struck with broadcasters across the globe including ITV, ESPN, Dubai Racing, and SuperSport. The deal agreed with UK commercial broadcaster ITV allows it to show not only the Grand National but also other major racing events, including those from Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Festival.

GlobalData estimates the deal is worth $35.27 million in total across a three-year period. The chief commercial officer of Ascot Racecourse Juliet Slot stated that the deal will allow ITV to bring together “existing and new audiences across the ITV portfolio of platforms.” Furthermore, the National continues to be an annual sporting event with a huge audience in the UK. ITV’s coverage of this year’s race achieved an audience of roughly 7.5 million people.

The Grand National Festival undoubtedly has a major value for sponsors, with a portfolio of 21 commercial partners that GlobalData estimates is worth $6.52 million annually. The most lucrative of these deals is with Randox Health, which serves as the title sponsor of the Grand National, as well as the official healthcare partner of The Jockey Club, until 2026. The five-year deal is worth an estimated $2 million annually, according to GlobalData. The renewal that was agreed makes the partnership with Randox Health the second-longest in the history of the Grand National.

The second and third most lucrative annual deals are both with gambling firms, Betway and William Hill, each worth $0.75 million annually. Betway has in place a five-year deal agreed in 2019 that allows the firm to serve as the Grand National Festival’s betting partner, as well as a sponsor of the Grand National race. William Hill’s three-year deal secures the opportunity to serve as an official betting partner of the Grand National Festival. Additionally, William Hill serves as the title sponsor of three other ITV-televised races during the three-day festival.

By comparison, the premier North American horse racing event, the Kentucky Derby, which takes place at Churchill Downs, has a hugely bigger commercial footprint. This American Grade I stakes race, which is viewed yearly by millions of people, generated an estimated $25.07 million from sponsors from the 2023 edition of the race.

Brands including Brown-Forman, Longines, and BMW all had deals in place worth over $1.5 million annually. The large amount of revenue invested from sponsors highlights that there is a significant commercial gap between the Grand National and the Kentucky Derby. The National has a long way to go if the event wants to compete with the Kentucky Derby in ranking as the top horse racing event in the world for sponsorship revenue.

Despite the commercial appeal of the Grand National and the millions of viewers who tune in every year to watch the famous handicap steeplechase, a recent YouGov poll has highlighted that 54% of British adults surveyed consider the Grand National is ‘very cruel’ or ‘fairly cruel’ to horses. The result of the poll indicates that many of the general public view the race in a negative light, which creates uncertainty for the National’s future if support for banning the race gains further traction.

A prevailing negative view of horse racing could also sway sponsors from partnering with the sport. The loss of crucial sponsorship investment as a result could have a devastating impact on the future of horse racing, with less money distributed to grow the sport and secure its future of the sport across the UK and Ireland.

Every year, there is renewed debate both pre- and post-race about the morality of the event. After another death of a horse competing in the Grand National and the new YouGov poll showing negative public perception of the race, voices across media outlets have been heard against the race, putting pressure on its long-term future. Organizers of the Grand National must ensure that horses’ safety remains a top priority, which could involve lowering the height of certain fences or reducing the number of participants. Protecting the huge Aintree course from invasion by protestors also remains a long-term concern.

After the suspension of racing at Churchill Downs and the events that occurred at this year’s Grand National, horse racing across the globe could face some skepticism from brands hesitant to partner with race meetings that have the potential for more horse deaths and resultant strongly negative publicity. Aintree Racecourse, supported by the British Horseracing Authority and The Jockey Club, should, like Churchill Downs, take the approach of conducting a top-to-bottom assessment of all safety and surface protocols using the best possible expertise.

With the analogy of the successful safety revolution that was forced through in motor racing’s premier Formula 1 series after the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, an improved safety culture in horse racing could reduce the risk of horse fatalities and jockey injuries, allowing historic events such as the Grand National and the Kentucky Derby to continue to be enjoyed by spectators worldwide, with millions of people tuning in every year.

Image: Michael Steele/Getty Images