Great Britain’s beloved champion Many Clouds collapsed and died moments after winning his final race, and an animal activist group questioned why the horse was still competing when he had shown previous signs of distress.
Many Clouds dug deep in a gritty homestretch duel to draw even with Thistlecrack and win by a head in Saturday’s Cotswold Chase, a three-mile steeplechase over 21 fences. Just as jockey Leighton Aspell was to be interviewed about 100 yards beyond the finish line, Many Clouds’ hind legs gave out and he fell to the ground as horrified spectators gasped. The 10-year-old gelding could not be revived. Green screens were erected around him and Cheltenham track medical personnel tried in vain to save him.
A postmortem exam was being conducted and the cause of death was expected to be internal hemorrhage or heart attack.
“As we pulled up, he felt as bright as a button, his ears were pricked. There was no hint of anything untoward. He was already in recovery mode after such a tough race and seemed absolutely fine,” Aspell said. “He sat down, then he lay down and died. You could see instantly he was gone by the look in his eyes and the colour of his gums. We lost him pretty quickly. The lights simply went out. I waited while the vets tried to save him, then said my goodbyes.”
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Trainer Oliver Sherwood held back tears as he spoke to reporters about Irish-bred Many Clouds, who was purchased for $6,000 in 2007 and became a popular national hero as he earned more than $1.4 million in 27 races, winning 12.
“I always said he’s one of those horses who would die for you, and he died for me and the team doing the thing he loved most,” Sherwood told reporters. “By God, he wanted to win that race. He was beaten at the last and fought back in the last 50 yards to get up and win.”
Many Clouds had been known to suffer “wobbles” -- unsteady legs -- in recent years. After his famed Grand National triumph in 2015 he was given oxygen before going to the winner’s area. He was also overheated after his 2014 Gold Cup victory.
Animal Aid, a British animal rights organization that wants to abolish horse racing as a sport, said it had warned the British Horseracing Authority that Many Clouds was vulnerable, especially after he staggered after crossing the Grand National finish line.
'Someone has got to be held responsible,” Dene Stansall of Animal Aid told The Daily Mail. “We are absolutely livid and we aim to take this further. The problem is the horse racing industry is self-regulated. He had nothing more to give and deserved a good retirement.”
Amid criticism that horse racing is a form of animal cruelty, the BHA defended the sport’s safety record.
“The symptoms exhibited by Many Clouds after his run in the Grand National are not uncommon in racehorses after exercise,” Robin Mounsey, the BHA’s media chief said on Sunday. “There is no existing veterinary evidence which links these symptoms with racehorse fatalities.
“[Animal Aid’s] stated aim is to ban all horse racing, despite the catastrophic impact this would have on the thoroughbred as a breed. The BHA works with recognised welfare organisations such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare.”
Mounsey said incidents of sudden equine fatality are extremely rare and cited BHA support of research, including post-race tracking of horses’ heart rates.
“The levels of care that the 14,000 horses in training at any one time receive throughout their lives is virtually unsurpassed by any other domestic or domesticated animal,” Mounsey said. “In exchange for this care they are asked to do what they are bred to do, which is race. There is a level of risk associated with this, as with any exercise involving horses. The BHA is open and transparent about this risk. In jump racing that level or risk is just 0.4 per cent, a figure which has decreased by around 1/3 in the last 20 years.”