National protest takes to the streets

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The Independent Online

Animal-rights campaigners will target the traditional office sweepstake in the run-up to the Grand National on Saturday week, in an attempt to persuade once-a-year punters to boycott the country's most popular race. Activists also plan to distribute leaflets outside betting shops in the days before the race, which is by far the biggest money-spinner of the year for Britain's bookmakers.

Animal-rights campaigners will target the traditional office sweepstake in the run-up to the Grand National on Saturday week, in an attempt to persuade once-a-year punters to boycott the country's most popular race. Activists also plan to distribute leaflets outside betting shops in the days before the race, which is by far the biggest money-spinner of the year for Britain's bookmakers.

Animal Aid, a campaigning group based in Kent, has printed 100,000 flyers and 2,000 posters which volunteers will pin to notice-boards in locations such as offices, community centres and vets' surgeries. The group also plans to target a number of betting shops in the run-up to the race, handing leaflets to punters as they enter.

The Animal Aid flyer pulls no punches. Its front shows a horse galloping with a flapping, broken foreleg, while a caption claims that "every year over 300 horses are raced to death in Britain". The campaign will be run under the slogan "Cruelty - you can bet on it", and in addition to the leaflets and posters, Animal Aid will also distribute a "fact sheet", containing a series of allegations of cruel practices in the racing industry.

These include gelding - or in the authors' words, "castration" - and firing, a process whereby red-hot needles are inserted into the tendons of horses. It is the flyer's graphic depiction of a horse with a broken leg, however, which will stick in the mind of anyone who sees it.

"We are trying to undercut the popularity of the Grand National and other big races by explaining the reality behind horse racing," Andrew Tyler, Animal Aid's director, says. "A large percentage of racehorses suffer bleeding lungs and tendon injuries, and the vast majority are disposed of unceremoniously at the end of their money-earning careers."

The move to target casual punters via their offices and local betting shops, rather than committed racing fans at major race meetings, marks an interesting change of tack by the campaigners. While some demonstrators will doubtless arrive at Aintree as usual on 8 April, Animal Aid, one of the leading campaigning groups, will have no official presence at the track.

According to Tyler, "there is no such thing as a harmless flutter. The British public are unwittingly gambling with animals' lives". He also criticises much of the reaction to the death of Gloria Victis in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. "There has been far too much poetry about the death of Gloria Victis," Tyler says, "as if he valiantly gave his life for a marvellous cause, when in fact he was the victim of a ruthless business that extracts blood from the animals it uses."

Animal Aid's new strategy appears to be a classic case of getting your retaliation in first. While injuries and deaths in the National always receive high-profile media coverage, the adverse publicity comes only in the aftermath of the race, giving casual punters 12 months to forget about it. By seeking to plant doubts in their minds in advance, Animal Aid hopes to persuade some of them to think twice before putting a pound in the office sweep, or making their annual trip to the betting shop on National morning.

The campaigners certainly have a huge pool of potential targets. Simon Clare, of Coral bookmakers, estimates that "up to a third of the adult population will have a bet on the race, the vast majority of whom will not place another bet all year". The turnover figures, too, are extraordinary. Up to £70m will be bet on this year's National, while the Derby, the next-biggest race in terms of turnover, will struggle to break £10m.

The racing authorities will be keen to counter Animal Aid's campaign as swiftly as possible. Peter Webbon, the Jockey Club's chief veterinary officer, said yesterday: "Like any race, the Grand National is competitive and there are risks, but that's true of all horseracing and all sports. I'd like to think I certainly wouldn't represent any group or body that was in any way involved in cruelty, and I am absolutely satisfied that there is no element of cruelty whatsoever."

Webbon also pointed out the numerous changes that have been made to both the course and conditions of the the Grand National in recent years. "We have a panel to ensure the horses are properly qualified and have shown jumping ability," he said, "and there is a pre-race veterinary inspection to ensure no animals are carrying an injury which has gone unnoticed. Amendments have been made to the fences, in close consultation with the RSPCA, and trainers must have access to schooling fences built in the Grand National pattern. All these things contribute to reducing risk."

The argument can only intensify, however, as campaigners' leaflets begin to appear in offices across the country. It seems that for as long as the Grand National remains Britain's most popular race, it will also be the most controversial.

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