Racing / Grand National: Rights issue created delay that led to chaos

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LOOKING out from the roof of the Aintree grandstand you could see people milling around on the course in front of the first fence, animal- rights protesters grappling with policemen and stewards as Captain Keith Brown was calling 40 runners into line for the Grand National. 'If he lets them go there could be a catastrophe,' somebody said.

The majority at Aintree and millions watching on television, were unaware of that gruesome possibility because the BBC, doubtless preferring not to publicise sensitive issues, resolutely kept their cameras trained on the start.

In a formal statement, Peter Greenall, chairman of Aintree, concluded that the animal-rights protest had little effect on the proceedings, but for some of us the delay brought a sense of impending chaos.

With rain squalling in their faces, even the most experienced horsemen found it difficult to keep their mounts calmly in position, and heels were sharply applied to the most stubborn flanks.

When Brown finally let them go, a roar of anticipation quickly became a groan when it was seen that some had been helplessly left and it was a false start. Now it developed into farce. When they went the second time, the tape streamed like bunting from the shoulders of some jockeys, and the red flag went up again.

Immediately, it was obvious that frantic attempts to communicate with the main body of the field were having no effect. 'Have you ever ridden in the National?' John White, the disappointed 'winner' on Esha Ness, said, scathingly, when a BBC interviewer naively asked why he had not responded to any of the shouts and signals.

And where in the world of sport could you have seen disappointment to match that which crossed White's face upon discovering that his victory would not count. There is wide sympathy for White because he has had to work hard for the small triumphs that have come his way. For a moment he felt that it had been all worthwhile, then the demoralising realisation that it did not amount to anything at all.

The fact is that there was more to the debacle than met most people's eyes. Unquestionably, there ought to be a better way of starting a race of this magnitude, and a clearer signalling system. But there was a lot going on out there. Of course, the Aintree authorities are not about to concede the point, but was it not some sort of a victory for sensitive souls who object to the idea of horses being set at high fences?