Is radical change the only answer for the long-term survival of the Grand National?
In the same period, 5 horses died in The Topham and 1 in The Foxhunters. Six horses also died over hurdles at Aintree in the same period and two horses died in NH flat races (4 died over fences on The Mildmay course).
I could have carried on and dissected the stats by runner, by comparison to other courses etc., but in the end what will matter is how racing explains itself to the public on days like these and, crucially, how it keeps the welfare organisations on its side. I’ve long thought that the RSPCA’s support for NH racing is a short-head away from being untenable. The whip controversy did substantial damage to racing’s relationship with the RSPCA and I think today’s fatalities will see the boardroom door at RSPCA HQ finally slammed on the Grand National and, sooner rather than later, on NH racing itself.
I suspect there might well be some table-banging going on at the next Heineken board meeting too (they own the John Smith’s brand). And what about Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR)? They hold a prime hand of UK racecourses – Aintree included. JCR put all their profits back into racing but they run a tightly-focused organisation acutely tuned to the commercial impact of their decisions. They’ll have little doubt that turnstile income won’t be affected by fatalities, but the change to CH4, the sensitivity of sponsors and the vulnerability of their brand to Animal Rights groups will need to be taken into consideration.
“They either take to them or they don’t”
So what is it about the race that causes carnage? Speed, say many professionals, and the temptation to go faster has been heightened by the changes intended to make the fences easier, the elimination of drops and shaving of heights.
Speed contributes, but I think the fences are the main problem. Steeplechasers spend 99% of their careers jumping park fences (the standard black birch barriers you find everywhere except Aintree and at Cross Country courses). Did you see Synchronised today when AP let him have a look at the first fence before cantering back to the start? Something spooked him there – it might have been the crowds or a camera or something, but it could have been the fence itself.
Why do some horses run well time and again at Aintree (Always Waining anyone?), while many pull up, fall or refuse? Could it be simple unfamiliarity or fear?
The Grand National fences are built on a foundation of solid wooden stakes dressed with tons of spruce. They’re dauntingly big and wide with an unusual colour, from a horse’s viewpoint. Racehorses like routine. Most don’t relish being asked to face something they’ve never previously encountered. Some, a rare few, find the experience refreshing and galvanising; others see it as an ordeal.
The performance of horses over Cross Country courses – Cheltenham’s being the only UK example – back up this theory. The same horses do well on these unusual tracks time and time again.
“Lessons will be learned”
Aintree and Racing plc cannot simply keep pleading this argument after each Grand National. Two horses died last year: ‘improvements’ were made: two horses died this year.
What will result from the review of this year’s race?
My opinion is that the only long-term solution will be to strip away the spruce, burn the wooden stakes and build standard steeplechase fences of regular height. A £1m prize will ensure the quality of the race and size of the field is not diluted, The extreme distance will still make it a unique test. The public will not be discouraged from betting on it, horses will no longer be taken by surprise and more of them will survive the race.
The nostalgia branded on my heart will mourn the passing of these fences (I had the honour of writing the words inscribed on Red Rum’s gravestone and of being present, alongside Ginger at his burial), but I’d sooner see these fences consigned to history than lose the race itself.