Caitriona Murphy on why more and more Irish racehorses end up on restaurant tables
It is the sport of kings which sees billions of euro gambled every year on the performances of the finely tuned, impeccably groomed competitors. For many horse-racing spectators, it is a fond assumption that these wonderful beasts end their days cantering gently around grassy retirement meadows.
But the truth is a little darker and for some, upsetting. They even have a term for the practice of eating horse meat — hippophagy — and it’s growing in popularity.
The appetite for equine flesh has surged to such proportions in recent years that Irish food producers and slaughterers can barely keep up with demand.
Most of the meat, prized for its richness and varied culinary uses, ends up on European dinner plates and barbecues, mainly in Belgium, Italy and France.
The number of horses slaughtered for human consumption has more than trebled in the past three years, according to new figures provided by Horse Sport Ireland.
In 2008, some 2,002 of the animals were slaughtered in licenced abattoirs, while in 2009 this figure rose to 3,220. Last year, the figure doubled to 7,009.
All of the horses were slaughtered under strict veterinary and food hygiene rules, overseen by Department of Agriculture officials and veterinary officers.
A small portion (less than 10pc) of the meat produced in Ireland is destined for the pet food market but the majority is produced for European consumers who eat horse meat steaks, sausages, salami and stews with gusto.
Each country has different tastes: the French are keen on lean, mature equine meat produced from older thoroughbred racehorses.
They prefer their ‘viande chevaline’ low in fat and tend to buy fresh cuts of meat for steaks, barbecues and stews. The Italians, on the other hand, prefer meat from larger, draught-type animals. As the biggest consumers of horse meat in Europe, they like higher-fat marbled meat for processing into salami and sausage products.
At first glance, the dramatic rise in Ireland’s horse slaughter figures could be mistaken for a huge surge in demand for Irish horse meat. However, the most recent kill figures are actually driven by an oversupply of horses and extra slaughtering capacity in this country.
Ireland’s economic downturn has had a devastating impact on the market for horses, with bloodstock sales falling from €179m in 2007 to €67.5m in 2009 and sport horse sales figures also plummeting.
The number of unwanted horses — racehorses, family pets and breeding stock — rose sharply as buyers disappeared.
In response to pressure from charities and industry bodies, the Department of Agriculture increased the number of licenced horse slaughter plants from just one factory in 2008 to five premises this year — B&F Meats Ltd in Kilkenny; Ballon Meats in Co Carlow; Shannonside Foods Ltd in Co Kildare; Ashgrove Wholesale Ltd in Co Limerick; and Ossory Meats in Co Offaly.
While statistics on the breed of horse slaughtered are not recorded by officials, the majority (60-80pc) are believed to be thoroughbreds.
John Joe Fitzpatrick from Shannonside Foods in Straffan says 80pc of the 2,200 horses slaughtered at his purpose-built plant last year were thoroughbred and 60pc would have raced.
The horses are sent for factory disposal for numerous reasons, including poor track performance, career-ending injuries, temperament issues, stable vices and lameness.
“It’s an economic decision for owners and the factory is the cheapest way to dispose of a horse,” explains Mr Fitzpatrick.
While the prospect of an Irish racehorse ending its days on a plate in Italy or France might seem horrifying to the average punter, industry insiders say factory disposal is an appropriate way to deal with unwanted horses.
Michael O’Rourke, communications director of Horse Racing Ireland, says owners remain responsible for the welfare of a racehorse, even after its racing or breeding career.
“The industry would encourage owners to examine all the options, such as resale, alternative use as a sport horse, retirement or donation to someone who can care for it,” he says.
“But if those options are exhausted, then humane destruction, either in a factory or through the knackery system, is an acceptable solution to avoid compromising the horse’s welfare.”
Joe Collins, former Veterinary Ireland president and author of a UCD report on equine welfare in Ireland, says he would prefer to see unwanted horses humanely disposed of in supervised, licenced premises “than abandoned on a bog”.
He dispels the somewhat romantic notion that all racehorses should be retired to a field to live out their days.
“Those are very good intentions but it is not necessarily the most welfare-friendly option,” he explains. “Even retired thoroughbreds need constant care. They need feeding, rugging, their teeth checked and cost a lot to keep.”
Retraining of racehorses for careers in the other disciplines of showing, show jumping, hacking and eventing is on the increase in Ireland but is starting from a small base.
The Irish Horse Welfare Trust (IHWT) runs a racehorse retraining programme, part-funded by Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association.
Its most famous graduate is Moscow Flyer, owned by Brian Kearney, trained by Jessica Harrington and ridden by Barry Geraghty.
The retired champion two-mile chaser, considered one of the greatest steeplechasers of the last 30 years, has been retrained for showing competitions by the IHWT.
The Racehorse to Riding Horse Ireland association is to hold a showcase festival at Boswell equestrian centre on Easter Sunday, while retrained racehorses have also featured at the RDS Dublin horseshow.
Nonetheless, reschooling racehorses takes dedication, time and patience from experienced trainers and not all ex-racers are suitable for retraining or re-homing.
Written by CAITRIONA MURPHY
Picture Credit: Alicia Frese (c) Flint Gallery