Racing / Grand National: National's flagging reputation may be beyond recall: Trainers call for a halt to recrimination while the Jockey Club begins its inquest into the events that triggered abandonment

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The Independent Online
A UNITED front from Britain's trainers yesterday, as those in racing felt the need to raise the rug and get rid of the ashes of Saturday's Grand National fiasco. Before the 147th Grand National is forgotten, though, the carpet beater will have to be applied to several dusty targets.

Toby Balding and Nick Gaselee, trainers who have known the greatest feeling at a National, said it would be best if racing kept recriminations to a minimum and tried to salvage the good name of the sport. Both had to concede that terrible damage had been done to racing's flagship event.

'We shouldn't be throwing stones at any one person, we should be trying to make sure it doesn't happen again,' Balding said. 'But there is no doubt it is a National disaster.' Gaselee added: 'It hasn't done much good for the image of National Hunt racing.'

Not least, among a worldwide audience, in the betting-frenzied colony of Hong Kong. Punters at Sha Tin and Happy Valley wagered dollars HK25m ( pounds 2.3m) on the race, a portion of which would have gone to Aintree.

There were many losers on Saturday, including, for once, the bookmakers, who will refund all stakes. William Hill may instigate legal proceedings to recover their slice of the pounds 75m turnover, while others are still considering their next move. 'We incurred a considerable cost on Switch betting, Freephones, extra staff and advertising,' Wally Pyrah, of Coral said. 'But we would like to reserve our position at present.'

Amid the debris of shattered prestige, the Aintree officials yesterday explained the starting procedure at the fulcrum of Saturday's problems.

The tape mechanism, which operated laboriously at race-time and twice caught horses' muzzles, had been examined three hours before the off; the recall process of flag-waving, which was shown to be flawed, was said to have operated well for decades.

'The communication system here is very, very old, as old as the race itself,' Bob Davies, part of the Aintree team and winner of the 1978 National on Lucius, said. Nigel Payne, the course marketing manager, added: 'This method of stopping a race has been proven over many years.'

But enduring beliefs, as the flat- earthers once demonstrated, are not enough.

The immediate emotion on Saturday was to blame either Keith Brown, the starter, or the recall official, Ken Evans, for the absurd events. Evans, at his position 200 yards up the course, was initially condemned for not alerting jockeys to a false start when the tape was broken for a second time; Brown, it was said, did not unfurl his flag and may have made it difficult for his colleague to see it.

But if these peccadillos by Brown and Evans (whose wage is pounds 28 a day), at the most tumultuous starting gate the turf can provide, are capable of fundamentally altering the showpiece of British sport, then something is rotten with the system.

The starting procedure rules, and many others in racing which may be written on parchment, will have to be re-examined.

When the field broke the tape for the second time one of those left behind was, with some irony, Wont Be Gone Long. For after the jockeys passed the recall official, there was no one to alert them until two miles and 14 fences had been negotiated.

In the confusion after the race Brown could have been forgiven his absurd suggestion that, under the rules of racing, the nine horses that had been pulled up at the start could contest a rerun. Had that gone ahead, the appearance of 30 animal-rights protestors on the course before the off may have appeared a minor intrusion.

John Upson, the trainer of Zeta's Lad who was pulled up after a circuit, told Evans he would 'see him in the courts', if the race went ahead. 'If the remaining nine had been allowed to take part I seriously think the crowd would have burned down Aintree,' Upson said yesterday.

The ultimate arbiters of Saturday's failed system, the Jockey Club, will today address what can be done to improve the starting mechanism for the National, and all other jump races.

Among the considerations will be the introduction of starting stalls for the jumps, a method already in use in Australia. Portman Square conducted trials on false starts a decade ago, when the idea of klaxons and flashing lights to alert jockeys was abandoned as this frightened the horses.

This fright would have been as nothing though compared to the one now felt by those in racing who will have to re-market to a disbelieving public a sport tarnished by the events of the 1993 Grand National.

(Photograph omitted)