Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Blue Cross

The Blue Cross

By Stephen Dwyer

They are the unsung heroes.

Dedicated professionals who volunteer their time and expertise to provide support and welfare for every racehorse at every racecourse in Ireland. From the start of this year to date the Irish Blue Cross have provided welfare services at 391 race meetings, both north and south. Many racegoers may not notice the large horse ambulances that are inconspicuously and carefully stationed at racetracks. This does not detract from their presence on race day but rather epitomizes it. Out of sight but not out of mind.

“Quiet professionals” is how Chris Connelly, manager of the Irish Blue Cross likes to describe the team. Consisting of a small band of volunteers, three members of the Blue Cross usually attend each race meeting. They are supplemented by local volunteers, a veterinary team and clerk of the course to provide an essential equine service. A horse ambulance is constantly on standby during every race. Containing start of the art equipment, the ambulance is called into play when a horse is injured. Each ambulance is fitted out by Stanley Trailers in County Kilkenny with a range of medical supplies including oxygen, slings and hoists. From a critical care perspective they are not unlike the ambulances which follow the jockeys.

The Blue Cross team carefully view each race through a pair of binoculars, often times they are aware of an injury to a horse before anyone else. First on the scene to an accident, the care and attention they provide to an injured animal is often the difference between life and death. As with any sport there are occasional injuries, a horse jumping a 2ft hurdle lands with 12,000 pounds of pressure. There are falls and cuts to deal with but throughout 2011 mortalities have consistently fallen. Chris Connelly cites internal figures from the Blue Cross; “Thankfully the rate of fatalities are down by 33% on last year”. In the event of an incident involving a horse, the ambulance is hastily dispatched. The team are directed by the on-course vet and assist in the transfer of the horse to a location for the appropriate treatment and care.

The safe and swift removal of injured horses ensures a safer environment for all. This task is a necessary but complex service that requires much skill and attention. As with any injured or frightened animal, a horse can be unpredictable but the equine handling skills of the Blue Cross are among the best in the country. Indeed the horse ambulance is successful only because the Blue Cross works as a unit with the racecourse staff to provide the required care. They also serve in an advisory capacity, working closely with the management of each racecourse to provide feedback which might benefit the welfare of the horse. Crucially they were also one of the groups involved with the Turf Club while researching the use of the whip in racing. They are experts in their field giving generously of their time.

Aside from the horse ambulance service, the Blue Cross provides a drop in centre for small animals at Inchicore in Dublin. Additionally there is a mobile veterinary treatment practice spread over ten locations. 2011 is their busiest year on record; over 25,000 cases were handled by the charity. These included x-rays, surgeries, vaccinations and micro chipping The Blue Cross mobile clinic and drop in centre caters for financially-strapped pet owners who are unable to afford veterinary fees. Private veterinary practices who assist the Blue Cross discount their fees by one-third. Their goodwill is matched with a contribution of one-third by the charity, leaving the pet owner with a manageable one-third to pay.

Surprisingly, The Blue Cross comprises of just fourteen staff but their workload is immense. Delivering a raft of welfare services and the horse ambulance costs in the region of €1 million each year. Put into context, that figure exceeds €19,000 each week.

Horse Racing Ireland bequeaths a flat rate of €346 per race meeting for the horse ambulance service. Out of this must come all of the necessary expenses such as fuel costs, tolls and other charges. The rate was reduced by 10% this year, a reduction of about €20,000 in operating costs. There is no doubt that the Blue Cross is under-resourced and it is staggering the volume of work they carry out given their resources. Yet carry it out they do, quietly and diligently.

HRI also provide a grant to the Blue Cross to assist with the running costs of the horse ambulance. In addition to this, a small percentage of prize money is allocated to the charity in conjunction with the Irish Racehorse Trainer’s Association. Despite this revenue, a shortage of funds remains their biggest challenge.

Fundraising events such as the raffles, dog walks and cash collections are necessary to ensure the survival of the service. Corporate sponsorship is rare although Betfair responded to a donation drive last March by making €10,000 available in sponsorship for a new ambulance unit. Betfair spokesperson Barry Orr summed up the sentiment felt by many when stating “we were delighted to be in a position to help a charity that supplies such a magnificent service to the Irish horse”.

Aside from race meetings, the horse ambulance service is present at the RDS horse show, international horse trials and the pet expo each year. Close ties with the Blue Cross in the UK are also critical as both organisations share a common goal. Indeed half of the trustees of the Irish board are also UK trustees, including the chairman. Their latest trustee, Kerstin Alford, is a director of Equine Welfare and ensures a constant focus at sport horse events.

Founded in 1945, the blue cross is blessed with talented volunteers who receive a plethora of skills in return for their time and input. Chris Connelly, a native of Galway and manager of the Blue Cross has worked with the charity since the early 1990’s. At that time the horse ambulance did not attend every race meeting. Now that it attends each fixture, this change of practise can be considered a triumph. Chris understands the importance of the ambulance service; “it is a resource that we provide to ensure that the best welfare to the horse can be called into action and delivered on the day”

The ambulance fleet is driven by Commercial Land Rovers, it comprises of three active units and one backup unit. Although stretched at times, they also respond to occasional roadside assistance emergency calls for horse boxes carrying animals involved in accidents. The Blue Cross does not have the same facilities at the Irish Horse Welfare Trust whereupon it rehomes horses and ponies but they share the same concerns. In their view, equine welfare is neither a rural or urban issue but a combination of both. The deterrent of stronger prosecutions for organised offenders would serve as a warning to those elements involved in the practise of animal neglect and cruelty.

Looking at the workload of 2011, the forthcoming year promises to be exceptionally busy for the Blue Cross. In this week’s budget, HRI have announced 70 additional racing fixtures despite a drop in income of 1.7%. This means 70 extra times that the horse ambulance will be in service. Grants to the Blue Cross are also likely to be sustained at their present level. This leaves little room for manoeuvre for necessary capital projects; for instance the headquarters of the charity requires a new roof which will cost €90,000. HRI also announced that €6 million will be made available for racecourse development so perhaps a slice of this can go towards developing further the excellent service carried out by the Blue Cross.
By their own self admission the Blue Cross would much prefer if they were never called upon during a race day. The industry can rest assured that the highest standards of care and welfare are provided at all times. That this is carried out by a small number of volunteers working on a shoestring budget makes it all the more impressive.

Hidden at times they may be, but we could not get by without them.

In numbers:
• 5386 the registered charity number of The Irish Blue Cross
• 1897 the year in which the British Blue Cross was founded (to care for working horses on the streets of London)
• 1945 the year in which the Irish Blue Cross was founded
• 391 the total amount of race meetings served by the Blue Cross this year
• 26 the amount of racecourses covered by The Blue Cross
• 14 the total number of Blue Cross staff (including two part time resources)
• 14% the increase in racecourse meetings attended by The Blue Cross in 2011
• 3 the size of the ambulance team (comprising of David Cahill, Laura Birt, Aidan Bailey)

Copyright: The Irish Field

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