Published on November 18, 2013 | by Kitty Trice

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Grand National scrutiny continues to rule racing

AP McCoy suffers a fall

AP McCoy, now having ridden 4,000 winners, suffers a fall [Photo: Paolo Camera]

With the new jump-racing season under way the controversial subject of horse welfare is once again likely to provoke debate among racegoers and animal welfare groups.

The focal point of controversy both for the British public and the international racing audience tends to be the Grand National at Aintree.

Injury and fatalities are nothing new to Aintree’s hallowed turf, but the sight of the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised and the strongly-fancied According to Pete suffering fatal injuries in the 2012 Grand National proved to be too much for many viewers.

With an estimated 500 million people around the world watching the Grand National, it was inevitable the race would come under heavy criticism after the deaths of two such prominent horses.

Scrutiny

The public outcry was exacerbated by the frenetic reaction of the media.

National newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, printed pictures of riders and horses falling, while some organisations even went as far as to call for the race, first run in 1839, to be banned.

“The public has been conned into believing that the Grand National is a great sporting spectacle when, in reality, it is straightforward animal abuse that is on a par with Spanish bullfighting,” Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler said.

“This race should have no future in a civilised country.”

Yet horse racing authorities in the United Kingdom are constantly trying to improve the safety of the race and have implemented wide-ranging changes to the way it’s run in recent years.

Smaller

Qualifications for entering a horse in the National have been drastically tightened by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA). The minimum age of horses eligible to enter has been increased to seven years old.

Other changes include moving the start of the race closer to the first fence to avoid the horses going too fast at the early stages, and also making many of the fences smaller.

“Every running of the Grand National is hugely important for British Racing in terms of both the image and economics of the sport,” Paul Bittar, Chief Executive of the BHA, said earlier this year.

“The level of scrutiny and pressure the racecourse and the participants were placed under was not warranted but there nonetheless.

“British Racing has both a track record and current programmes to be proud of with regard to horse welfare. Consequently, prior to the race it was frustrating to witness other parties exploiting the media attention on the Grand National to claim otherwise.

“A turnout of around 30 protestors outside the course compared to the sell–out crowd of 70,000 and millions more on TV puts the level of support for the race into some perspective.

“The Grand National is our biggest shop window to the sport, and it was gratifying after a couple of tough years and a testing build up, that the 2013 running once again showed it in its best light.”

Consequences 

Those closely involved in the sport are often the most affected by fatalities.

“This race should have no future in a civilised country.”

Andrew Taylor

For example, John Hales, the owner of the 2012 winner Neptune Collonges, was devastated after seeing his King George V winner One Man die at Aintree in a different race after a fall. He candidly admitted that he and his family had never got over it.

Those involved in National Hunt racing believe that the publicity the race receives does not help its reputation and also the fact that the public do not see the behind the scenes treatment of the horses.

Natalie Frampton, from Dorset, who has worked for top trainer Paul Nicholls, believes that the race is affected by bad publicity.

“Horses unfortunately die everyday all over the world in every kind of sport, showjumping, eventing, and hunting, but even more importantly more die due to neglect.

“The horses that run in the National are loved and looked after, I should know as I’ve looked after one.”

Vets

“I genuinely think the racecourse has done the best job they can possibly do and still keep the race a true Grand National. Of course they can make the race shorter but surely that’s what the Beecher’s Chase [a race involving one circuit of the National fences] is for?

“The course has an incredible team of vets but that’s not something everyone gets to see as its behind closed doors as all horses are checked over by vets before the race.”

However, the four-and-a-half mile distance of the race is the equine equivalent of a marathon and as such can lead to tiredness. When a horse is tired there is a greater risk of it falling as a result of carelessness.

Also, the National is renowned for its unique fences, which differ hugely, from Beechers Brook, which has a huge drop on the landing side of the fence, to The Chair, which is the widest on the course and has a three-foot deep ditch.

Arguably these types of fences are a significant factor in why so many horses and riders fall but the size of the field is also critical.

With 40 runners in the race, there is the greater likelihood of those in front falling and tripping up the runners behind them. No other race in the world has so many runners and many argue that the field size is more dangerous than the height of the fences.

 

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