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Cheltenham Festival horse Highland Hunter dies after fatal incident

Highland Hunter (left) took part in the Ultima Handicap Chase and was later put down  (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)
Highland Hunter (left) took part in the Ultima Handicap Chase and was later put down (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

A first horse of the week was put down on the opening day of the 2024 Cheltenham Festival.

Highland Hunter, the 11-year-old grey gelding was put down after the Ultima Handicap Chase, with concerns about his health immediately beginning to grow after the 2.50pm race – the third of the day.

And ITV presenter Ed Chamberlin confirmed the sad news of the death live on air shortly afterwards.

“I’m afraid it’s the news we feared,” Chamberlin said. “The racecourse have been in touch to say this ‘Highland Hunter was immediately attended to by expert veterinary professionals during the third race, the Ultima Handicap, but sadly sustained a fatal injury’.

“They say ‘our heartfelt condolences are with connections’ and we echo that.”

The horse was trained by Fergal O’Brien and ridden by Paddy Brennan in the Ultima Handicap, which was won by Chianti Classico.

O’Brien posted his heartbreak on social media after the news, tweeting: “Not sure we’ll be tweeting again today after this. Absolutely devastated. Thanks for the messages we’re already receiving and those to come #RIPHighlandHunter.”

Animal rights campaigning group, Animal Aid posted on X, saying: “R.I.P Highland Hunter (IRE), aged 11, killed on the first day of The Cheltenham Festival 12/03/24.”

They also posted a statement from lain Green, director of Animal Aid, stating: “The racing authorities, the breeders, the owners, the jockeys and the government are all equally culpable for putting horses into high-risk situations where their welfare and their lives are endangered. This isn't sport, this is animal abuse.”

At least one horse has been put down at every Cheltenham Festival since 2000 with Animal Aid data showing that 74 horses have died at the event in the last 24 years.

Highland Hunter’s death comes just days after he led the procession at the funeral of amateur point-to-point jockey Keagan Kirkby, who died after suffering a fall three weeks ago.

Kirkby, 25, passed away after suffering multiple injuries when his horse stopped at a fence, bolted into the side of a jump, threw him off and then landed on top of him in a point-to-point race at Charing.

Highland Hunter was a favourite of Kirkby’s, who worked for 14-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls.

James Given, BHA director of equine regulation, safety and welfare, said: “Everyone in the sport is devastated about the sad news regarding Highland Hunter and Ose Partir. Our thoughts go to everyone connected to the horses, as well as the family and friends of Keagan Kirkby, who loved the horse so dearly.

“Highland Hunter suffered a cardiovascular collapse after having pulled up before the second last fence. Incidences of this in racing are very rare – approximately 0.03 per cent of runners. As is always the case steps will be taken to look into what caused the incident, including a post-mortem being arranged for the horse.”

This article was amended on 13 March 2024. The story originally referred to Highland Hunter having suffered a fall, which was inaccurate.