Grand National deaths: an owner’s viewpoint. Racehorse syndicate manager David Parry on the changes he’d like to see

David Parry (pictured right) of David Parry Racing is the latest to add his thoughts on the Grand National fallout.

When Ballabriggs crossed the line victorious in the 2011 Grand National, it signalled the start of an at times frenzied examination of the future of the race. What was predictable was that the debate would be led by those long opposed to racing in general. What was less so was the reaction of many actively involved in the sport already.

There can be no doubt that the deaths of two of the runners was not a desired outcome – but nor can it have come as the shocking, attitude changing eureka moment that some in the sport are claiming it to be. Racing horses, particularly over obstacles, is a challenging and thrilling pursuit. Inherent in it is a danger to both horse and rider and to claim that this was not known to those involved in the sport is nonsense.

Those involved in racing DO acknowledge the danger and we do to some extent embrace that danger. At the same time, we manage that danger and continually assess whether or not more needs to be done.

The list of changes to the National format and to jumps racing in general is a long one already and there is no shortage of new suggestions; Limit further the number of runners, produce slower ground, make fences smaller/bigger, introduce age restrictions on horses, chicane style start to reduce speed. We should examine all of these, if only as part of the normal appraisal of the sport. To do nothing & hope for the best is not an acceptable PR position but more than that, it is simply rank bad business practice.

Changes if implemented need to be subtle – can we reduce further the risk whilst maintaining the spectacle, the challenge & the elements that make the National what it is. There are plenty of marathon chases in the programme book but only one gets beamed around the world. That is the very reason why we should be looking to make changes if needed but maintaining the unique elements of the race.

The essence of the National is a large field, long distance handicap run over obstacles that are both unique in appearance & construction and challenging due to the variety of fences involved. All of that should be maintained. If we can manage down the risks involved still further whilst maintaining that essence it will be a job well done.

Of all the suggestions that I have heard, the desire for good to soft ground (or softer) makes the most sense to me. It both limits speed over the ground & (often) produces a sliding fall rather than a crunching fall. Removing or reducing those two elements (speed & an unforgiving surface) is where any change should be focused.

A thorough and measured examination of the race is appropriate and that is planned. Let us hope that the response is centred on managing the risks rather than the criticism.

One final thought about the immediate aftermath of the race. Much has been made of horses being dismounted, unsaddled & cooled down with water immediately after the line. It transpires that this was not a reaction to dehydrated horses but a pre planned action by the BHA in acknowledgement of a hot day. Why not tell the press/BBC that beforehand & so have the actions reported as a sensible precaution to protect horses rather than as a panic measure?

About Steeplechasing

Writer, horse-racing fan, cyclist, consultant, entrepreneur. Worked at Aintree, SiS, The Tote, Ladbrokes. Created scoop6. Now run Gamtrain Ltd

Posted on April 12, 2011, in 2011 post-Grand National debate, General, John Smith's Grand National and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thank you David for an interesting and constructive post.
    I agree very much with the point that ensuring the race is run on soft/slow ground could help reduce injuries. There was heavy ground in 2001 when Red Marauder won the National and only 4 horses finished, two of which had to be remounted, which is not allowed these days, and there were no fatalities that year.
    Personally I would not like to see the race run on very testing ground like the Eider Chase was at Newcastle in February.
    Although none of the Eider runners died, the three finishers where so exhausted they could barely climb over the final fences and it was not a pretty spectacle.
    Ensuring the ground is as suitable as possible by watering is never going to be easy given the weather can change so quickly in early April.
    Aintree dries out incredibly quickly and, although the Wednesday before the meeting began was a drying day and so to was Thursday after a little very light drizzle in the morning, it is my understanding that the Grand National course was not fully watered on either day.
    On Ladies’ Day there was a drying breeze and it was a remarkably hot and sunny day for the time of year. I believe they began watering the Grand National course immediately after the Topham Chase on Friday and that they were still watering the track mid-morning on Saturday.
    If this is correct it suggests that the clerk of the course, Andrew Tulloch, was concerned that the ground was becoming quick.
    Watering during daylight hours, especially in sunshine, is far less effective than it is when done in the evening due to evaporation.
    I want to make it clear I am not trying to criticise Mr Tulloch’s watering policy as I am obviously not aware of all the factors that he will have had to take into consideration, such as the local weather forecasts, the available man-power and the watering facilities and their capacity, to quickly effect the going.
    However, I would be interested to know Aintree’s clerk of the course’s thoughts on the subject as he will be a key player in any discussions about trying to provide slower/safer ground in future.
    The decision to instruct the jockeys to dismount immediately after the finish of the Grand National may well have been in response to the Topham Chase winner Always Waining being dehydrated and distressed when being unsaddled in the winner’s enclosure on the Friday when the weather was so hot.
    Not informing the TV, radio, press and the racegoers that the Grand National runners were going to be dismounted immediately after crossing the line and taken directly to the stables due to the warm weather was very strange.
    This change to the normal procedure, while unique, was clearly done in the best interests of the horses. So why not make the information public.
    The victor and placed horses not returning to be unsaddled was very worrying for many in the crowd packed around the winner’s enclosure after the race.

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