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But few of the thoroughbred racehorses that gallop their elegant way around the racecourses of Britain every week are left to see out their days grazing in golden pastures. For thousands of British thoroughbreds that are too old, too slow or not good enough jumpers, the end is brutal: Then their carcasses are loaded on to freezer lorries and driven to France, where their flesh is sold as gourmet meat.
This mass disposal of thoroughbreds is the side of the multi-billion-pound British racing industry that is rarely mentioned and even more rarely seen. It is not illegal. But animal welfare charities are demanding that more money be spent to provide sanctuaries where horses can live in retirement, and that the massive breeding programme that provides the sport with its horses be scaled back.
Most of the animals, which could live on average more than 30 years, are killed before their fifth birthday. This weekend an Observer investigation shines a light on this grisly underbelly of the sport. We also reveal that a director of one of the horse abattoirs claims to have killed horses for leading names in the industry and that another is a judge at the Horse of the Year Show.
Some will be retrained for hunting or eventing; others will be used for breeding. But the physical make-up of racehorses means that many are not suitable for riders who want a gentle hack on a Sunday afternoon. A study by the Equine Fertility Unit in Newmarket attempted to track 1, thoroughbred foals born in It discovered that only were ever entered for a race in the UK and fewer than remained in training as four-year-olds.
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More than had been destroyed, died or were untraceable. To discover the fate of these animals, an Observer reporter posed as a horse trainer from the Midlands who needed to dispose of four thoroughbreds that had not made the grade.
The first slaughterhouse is south of the historic Cheshire town of Nantwich. Those in the racing industry know the establishment as Turners, the surname of the family that has run it since The second abattoir is in a village on the outskirts of Taunton, Somerset, and is hired by Bristol-based firm Lawrence J Potter for a weekly horse cull on Wednesdays.
These two operations take care of the vast bulk of the 6, to 10, horses the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates are being killed annually for consumption abroad.
Phone calls to both places confirmed they were happy to take our fictional racehorses.
Both confirmed they had good relationships with trainers, breeders, dealers and stud farms. Valerie Turner, the owner of Cheshire Equine Services, told us its main time for killing horses was Friday, between 7am and 2pm, when it slaughtered between 50 and animals.
We asked if we could check out the facilities and she agreed. Pitched in the midst of rolling Pennine hills, the slaughterhouse is invisible to ramblers out on a stroll. Hidden behind tall trees, the approach is via a long gravel lane that would be difficult to find without proper directions. At the end of this track is an ugly collection of grubby red buildings devoid of signs. In the courtyard are a collection of anonymous metal wagons that have brought the horses to be destroyed.
A sickly smell permeates the place of blood, urine and dead flesh.
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Asked if they slaughter thoroughbreds, he replied: Asked which trainers use the slaughterhouse, he named several, including Ginger McCain, the trainer of Red Rum. Harvey Smith comes here quite a lot. There are no details of the new owner, who, five years on, has brought Louis Laval to be turned into horsemeat.
Valerie Turner took our reporter on a tour. In the butchering room, blood could be seen seeping through the plastic doors.
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Four men were dressed in white coats covered in blood. Up above, three horse carcasses were hanging upside down with metal shackles tied halfway up their hind legs. Their hooves had been cut off and the heads had been removed. One man was using knives to skin the dead animals.
As we walked through the holding pen, a gunshot went off. In a phone call to Valerie Turner later in which we explained we were from The Observer, she played down the numbers of horses they kill from the racing industry. She also rebutted the earlier statement that they kill 2, to 3, racehorses a year, claiming the figure was closer to The picturesque village of Staplegrove sits on the outskirts of Taunton.
Sitting at the bottom of a sloping windy road is a large, drab warehouse. Like Turners, there are no signs to indicate what it is.
Yet every Wednesday morning throughout the year, 50 to 60 horses are brought down this lane never to return. Potter admits he kills some 3, a year, but denies that most are racehorses. Each year thousands will become ill or get injured and need to be put down.
It is a valuable service and without people like us, the welfare of horses in Britain would be much worse. It is a hard-hitting critique of the racing industry that argues the chase for glory and profit has led to a large over-production of thoroughbred foals.
It claims that in Britain three times as many horses are being produced as there were 40 years ago and a decreasing proportion - currently about 35 per cent - are sufficiently robust to start racing. Its conclusion does not mince words: They are bred to be swift but pay a price in skeletal strength and general vigour.
The result is that fewer foals make the commercial grade. Many of the "failures" are slaughtered for meat. A hunger for profit and glory has resulted in the production of far more horses than racing can absorb. The key question is not for the abattoirs but for the racing industry.
Why are they producing so many foals and is it necessary? But he did admit: It was set up last October by Serena Miller, who has worked in racing since she was 13 and rode for a host of trainers.
Miller set up the charity after becoming appalled by the treatment of discarded thoroughbreds: There has to be a better way. That stallion might cover mares in one year.