Peter the Punter on the Grand National
It was as a young boy standing by the rails at Tattenham Corner, Epsom, that I witnessed my first horseracing accident. A horse stumbled and fell coming down the hill. Both horse and rider were trampled by those behind and the jockey was kicked into the timber and concrete running rails. He was stretchered away, unconscious, an arm hanging limp from one side. The hand bore the unmistakeable mark of a hoofprint in crimson where the flesh had been torn from the bone. He no doubt survived, though I doubt the horse did, but it taught me then that horseracing is a very dangerous game.
The lesson has been repeated countless times since, most recently whilst viewing along with several million others the TV coverage of this year’s Grand National. No matter how thrilling the race, the loss of brave and beautiful animals casts a gloom upon the occasion. The two stricken horses in last Saturday’s race were shown unusually clearly by high camera shots as the remaining field sped past the dolled-off fences. Perhaps it was this graphic portrayal of death-at-the-races intruding into the afternoon’s entertainment that prompted stronger than usual calls for the event to be banned. Understandably and predictably, the calls reflected more passion than reason.
The Grand National is not an especially dangerous race. It is extreme, in that it is the longest race in the calendar and the obstacles are unusually large and testing, but these are not the main reasons why jump racing is so risky. Ginger McCain, trainer of three-times Grand National winner Red Rum, nailed it when commenting after the race “It is speed that kills.” Steeplechases run over the minimum trip of two miles are probably the sport’s most dangerous events, since they require precision jumping at high speed over stiff fences. If you really want to eliminate the riskiest races, you would probably start with these and then work your way up through the distances until you get to the longest races, such as the Eider Chase and finally, of course, the National.
Hurdling illustrates the same principle. There are fewer fallers – about one every fourteen runs as opposed to one every seven in steeplechases – but the speeds are generally much faster and the falls therefore more serious. Again, it is the shorter, pacier races which are the more dangerous, rather than the marathons.
There was an unusually high number of finishers in this year’s National - nineteen as against the more typical dozen or so. The winner’s time of just over nine minutes was very quick. The unseasonal warm weather and dry conditions no doubt played their part and probably contributed to both fatalities too. They occurred early, when the horses were travelling at their fastest, as McCain’s dictum might have predicted. Each year the jockeys are warned to take it steady early on but the instruction is not so easy to follow. Racehorses love to race and forty of them gathered before a noisy throng are only too likely to defy the restraints of even the strongest professional jockeys and set too fast a gallop.
Like other dangerous sports, such a motor racing, horseracing has done much over the years to improve safety – for example, the introduction of plastic running rails, vastly improved vetinary and medical facilities, and the redesign and resiting of fences, including the National fences at Aintree, which though still awesome enough are not as tough as they used to be. The reduction in size and difficulty has doubtless contributed to fewer casualties over the years, but it does also to some extent cut the other way. Because the obstacles are easier, the horses take them faster, again increasing the risk.
You cannot get away from it. Horseracing will never be entirely safe. So do you ban it? If you do, you would have to ban all horseracing to be consistent. Fatalities on the flat are commonplace too, although a high proportion occur in training away from the public gaze. And if you ban all horseracing, what about other equine sports and pastimes, such as Eventing, Arab Racing, Pony Trekking or Sunday afternoon cross-country hacking on a tired old nag? None of these activities are particularly safe for man or beast, as participants will well know. And once all these dangerous activities have been banned, what about others where animals regularly suffer death or injury, such as greyhound racing, pigeon fancying and fishing?
Logic and consistency in this matter leads one to some extreme conclusions if you start from the premise that the death of two racehorses is in itself grounds for banning a race. A more practical, sensible and ultimately humane approach would be to continue the process of making it safer and fairer. Knowledgeable followers of the sport will be familiar with the kind of thing. You could for example reduce the length of the run to the first fence, thereby forcing the horses to slow sooner. Greater watering of the course would help too. And field sizes could definitely be reduced.
These are only some suggestions. There are no doubt others which could be introduced without destroying the unique character and appeal of the race. Banning it would serve little purpose however, except to appease certain lobbies and some once-a-year race watchers who wear their heart on their sleeve and their brains somewhere entirely different.