Heartbreak as tragic Keagan Kirkby’s favourite horse dies at Cheltenham: 11-year-old grey suffers fatal injury – days after it led procession at funeral for the amateur jockey who died in fall during race

  • Highland Hunter died after collapsing in the Ultima Handicap Chase today 

A horse has heartbreakingly died on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, days after he led the funeral procession of jockey Keagan Kirkby. 

Highland Hunter, an 11-year-old grey, collapsed and died after suffering a heavy fall in the Ultima Handicap Chase at 2.50pm today. 

His death comes just ten days after he delivered an emotional victory at Newbury under jockey Paddy Brennan.

He was the favourite horse of Kirkby, who died after falling from his horse during the last race of the day at Charing racecourse in February.

The horse was led through the village of Ditcheat for the amateur jockey’s funeral on March 5, where the 25-year-old worked for 14-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls. 

Highland Hunter, an 11-year-old grey, collapsed and died in the 2.50pm race at Cheltenham Festival  

He was the favourite horse of Kirkby (right), who died after falling from his horse during the last race of the day at Charing racecourse in February

He was the favourite horse of Kirkby (right), who died after falling from his horse during the last race of the day at Charing racecourse in February

Keagan Kirkby, 25, pictured with his girlfriend Emily Burge before his death

Keagan Kirkby, 25, pictured with his girlfriend Emily Burge before his death

The horse was led through the village of Ditcheat for the amateur jockey's funeral on March 5

The horse was led through the village of Ditcheat for the amateur jockey’s funeral on March 5

The news was broken by ITV Racing presenter Ed Chamberlin, who said: ‘I’m afraid it’s the news we feared.’ 

He then read out a statement from Cheltenham Racecourse, which said: ‘Highland Hunter was immediately attended by expert veterinary professionals in the concluding stages of our third race but sadly passed away. Our heartfelt condolences are with his connections.’ 

After hearing the news, trainer Fergal O’Brien tweeted: ‘Not sure we’ll be tweeting again today after this. Absolutely devastated. Thanks for the messages we’re already receiving and those to come.’

Kim Bailey’s Chianti Classico won the race at 6-1 to take the Ultima Handicap Chase for trainers David Bass and Kim Bailey.

Keagan Kirkby was scheduled to ride at Cheltenham this year, but was devastatingly killed when his horse ran through the wing of a fence during the second circuit of the race at the Charing point-to-point in Kent.

Recalling the tragic incident, his girlfriend Emily said: ‘One of the other jockeys spoke to me afterwards and said the horse ran right through the wing.

‘He said there was nothing any rider could have done to avoid what happened – it was no one’s fault.

‘There were two ambulances, the course doctor and an air ambulance, everyone did all they could to save him. They were so good.’

His girlfriend Emily Burge was able to tell him she loved him as paramedics battled to save him

His girlfriend Emily Burge was able to tell him she loved him as paramedics battled to save him

Kirkby is pictured with racing legend Sir AP McCoy in November 2013

Kirkby is pictured with racing legend Sir AP McCoy in November 2013

The couple were due to go on holiday together to the Lake District for Emily’s birthday in May before house-hunting for their first home together.

Keagan had raced twice already at the Sunday meeting, coming fourth and second before riding in the final event of the meeting.

The talented young jockey was looking forward to riding at Newbury later this month, his first at a recognised racecourse.

Hunter’s passing takes the death toll of the festival up to 75 since 2000, as animal right’s activists continue to call for the four-day-event to be cancelled. 

Nina Copleston-Hawkens, the Animal Aid Campaigns Officer, said it was ‘unacceptable’ that this event is allowed to continue after another horse lost its life. 

She said: ‘The racing industry will undoubtedly dismiss this casualty as a symptom of the “inherent risk” involved in horse racing. This is nonsense. Horses do not consent to this risk; they are bred into the world, pushed to their limits, and killed when no longer of use to the industry, or on a racecourse after trying their best.’