THERE is no sporting spectacle quite like it. With a roar from the crowd as the tapes go up, the big bold chasers hurtle towards the first fence. Soon some are knocking great swathes of spruce out of the fences. Some are tumbling, their riders sitting on the ground smacking their whips into the turf in frustration at a dream postponed for another year. It is a race which is never without drama. It is a race which is won only by the brave. No wonder that an audience of 450 million in 150 countries wants to watch it.

But it is also a dangerous pursuit for horse and rider. Motor racing and horse-racing are the only two sports in which the participants are routinely followed by ambulances. Three horses, on Saturday, didn't come back. They died on the course as did the spectacular and much beloved grey One Man in an Aintree race the day before. Thanks to the cloudbursts through the week before the four-mile National was run in the most taxing conditions in living memory, the rain-soaked turk making it an even greater stamina-sapping test than it normally is. The winner took a whole two minutes longer than the record time to complete the course. Thirty one of the of the 37 starters did not finish.

Animal rights activists are calling it `carnage'. The RSPCA is to conduct an inquiry into the deaths of the three horses. So were we glorying in a cruel and unnecessary spectacle more appropriate to the circuses of ancient Rome than to the supposedly compassionate society of today's Cool Britannia? Is it time to wind up the National?

Certainly those who have insisted in recent years on moderating the National's previously notorious "drop" fences have been truly vindicated against the diehards who insisted that it was destroying the true character of the race as a unique test of horse and rider. But before we indulge in dramatic talk about banning the National, or indeed the Cheltenham Festival, which in 1996 saw 10 horses killed during three days of highly competitive racing, we should look at the facts. The three sad fatalities in Saturday's race: Pushto, Do Rightly and Griffin's Bar, fell respectively at the first, fourth and fifth fences. It was not a case of exhausted animals at the end of their tether being driven unwilling into the obstacles. They could have died the same way in any race anywhere.

It is in any case remarkably difficult to make a horse which does not want to do so jump a fence. Of the 31 horses who did not finish the National seven which were clearly not relishing the conditions were sensibly pulled up by their riders before they started on the second circuit. And a few took their own decisions, `refusing', and sending their riders over the odd fence without their assistance.

Certainly the conditions were extreme, making the race a real slog. But let it be remembered that the gallant Suny Bay, who finished second, did so carrying the maximum handicap weight of 12 stone. They were tough, but not impossible conditions.

What certainly can be said is that there were a number of horses in the field - and big fields can make falls more likely - who were the equine equivalent of vanity publishing. Their owners knew they were not good enough to be in the field on merit but they wanted to be able to say "My horse is running in the National". Perhaps the authorities could look again at the race entry conditions to see if more stringent qualifications should be imposed.

Yet looking in advance at Saturday's field you would have classed Greenhil Tare Away as one of the no-hopers. But under his veteran jockey Simon McNeill, the 100-1 shot gave a vintage display of front running, sharing the lead until unshipping his rider at the 27th fence. He could well have run into a place. Should his owner's dream have been ended because his form figures this year read Pulled Up, Seventh, Pulled Up, Refused, Pulled Up?

Of the three horses which died in the National, Pashto was handled by top trainer Nicky Henderson, who knows exactly what is required and would not run a dog. Do Rightly had a touch of class as a novice and had only fallen once in his career and Griffins Bar had run well over the Aintree fences back in November. All had the right to run.

As for the race itself, if you were to ban the National, you would logically have to ban Cheltenham too after the string of fatalities two years ago. There were all sorts of inquiries then, official and unofficial. In consultation with the RSPCA they looked at starting procedures, modern training techniques, the use of roving cameras near the rail, the use of the airship above, officials wearing fluorescent jackets ... The result? A conclusion that "no single factor, or indeed combination of factors is to blame" although personally I believe that we are seeing more injuries because there are more ex-Flat horses, as opposed to those bred for jumping now competing over obstacles.

Those of us who take our pleasure watching brave horses, and brave riders, compete over obstacles know that some of them will perish and some will be badly injured. But the ten who died at Cheltenham in 1996 represented 2.7 per cent of the 364 runners at the meeting. The average of fatalities over ten years was 0.95 per cent.

I could not and would not ever willingly cause an animal pain. As a racing enthusiast, I probably tend to gloss over the less attractive aspects. But nobody cares more about the fate of these wonderful creatures than those who live and work with them. You had only to watch One Man's sobbing, inconsolable jockey coming in after his fatal fall to realise that.

Cheltenham is the Olympics of National Hunt racing. Aintree's Grand National provides the marathon. Finely tuned human athletes tested in the highest competition frequently break down. Usually they recover. They do not have to be, in that unfortunate phrase, "humanely destroyed".

The sad thing is that when half a ton of horse breaks its leg, it is almost invariably unmendable and the kindest action is to have to put down. It is sudden death. It is public, and inevitably it arouses deep emotion, especially in jump racing where horses like One Man have become recognisable characters over the years. But such deaths, however tragic, are not a good reason to ban the Grand National.

Robin Oakley, political editor of the BBC, is Turf columnist for The Spectator