Race plan lengthens odds on disruption: Grand National course officials are determined to avoid another fiasco. Jonathan Foster reports

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The Independent Online
UNDERCOVER police officers yesterday began the ultimate national hunt, scouring the 300 acres of Aintree racecourse for animal rights active service units poised to disrupt the world's greatest steeplechase.

The three-day Grand National meeting began at the north Liverpool course with more than 200 uniformed and plain-clothes police, plus 600 security guards, under orders to prevent repetition tomorrow of the protests which triggered a chain of events that made a farce of the 1993 event.

The race was declared void after the starting apparatus and the officials operating it failed. Protesters claimed their invasion of the course spread a human and equine anxiety which contributed to the subsequent chaos.

Merseyside police and racing authorities are confident nobody will confound improved security arrangements, and a new electronically-controlled starting tape with extra flag men on the course.

Supt Paul Burrell said: 'The race will be run. We have collected intelligence on who may disrupt the race, and there will be a covert presence inside and outside the course. We have spent several months on undercover and surveillance operations.'

Protesters, organised by Action to Abolish the Grand National (AAGN), were yesterday unmoved by the possible infiltration of their ranks by police. Karen Harvey, one of 15 protesters arrested last year, said the group could call on hundreds of supporters. 'There have been attempts to marginalise us by saying we are doing this for political ends. We represent all ages, and all shades of political opinion,' she said.

'About 250 horses a year are killed in National Hunt racing. It's not like an injured jockey who ends up in hospital with gifts of chocolate. The horses end up on some dog's dinner plate.'

Dene Gordon-Stansall, an AAGN member, was at the course yesterday to prepare for a protest demonstration today. He doubted if the big race could be interrupted, but said: 'I will be very happy if we get 500 for the demonstration. Until there are policies to reduce the number of deaths, our campaign will continue.'

Police have agreed to a demonstration outside the course, but their intelligence is believed to have monitored anarchist groups planning to use the AAGN as cover for a class-war skirmish. The protesters, however, regard the anarchist 'threat' with amusement. Police will not disclose details of their operation, but the racing fraternity is so embarrassed and angry about events last year that it would gladly sanction undercover police horses in the race, their jockeys armed with sabres.

'Horses love racing. I can't feel any sympathy for the protests,' a woman said from under a big hat.

Les Mathieson, who has attended the National for 15 years, said the race was 'getting less cruel by the year - horses can get killed in training'.

(Photograph omitted)