Racing: Tape masks Aintree's high casualty rate: No snags at the start, but a harsh toll is inflicted by unforgiving fences out on the Grand National course

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FORGET the start, the start worked, but the sight of so many good horses falling and the death of one, Merano, was hard to stomach at Aintree on Saturday. While every lens was trained on the starter to see if he had perfected the three-strand tape trick, a gruesome series of falls over the Grand National fences received less attention than it should. For the animal-rights protestors who caused the delay which led to the National muddle, this was an ironic side-effect of their actions.

Only two of the seven starters finished in the two-mile chase, the first at that distance over the big spruce fences, and it was little better in the main event, the Becher Chase, when six from 11 completed.

None of the main protagonists were complaining yesterday, none of the humans anyway. Those with most reason to feel sorry for themselves, Mick Easterby, the trainer of Merano, and Adrian Maguire and Howard Johnson, rider and trainer of the luckless falling favourites, Howe Street and Ushers Island, were at worst stoic and, in one case, bubblingly optimistic.

Johnson, the Co Durham trainer, was the one talking excitedly about the future rather than reflecting on how his two horses had come to the second last fence like winners and there come to grief.

'Howe Street was pinging them just like he did in the National (in which he also fell),' Johnson said. 'There were a lot of fallers, but that might have happened on a park course.'

Of Ushers Island, who like the horse he was challenging, Indian Tonic, is now 33-1 for the 1994 National with Coral, Johnson said: 'He'll be back there in the spring. Adrian said he was about to let out a bit of rein and expected to go away. He said that he thought it might have been his fault, but I told him it's no bugger's fault, it's just one of those things. That's racing.'

It certainly is, death and all. Mick Easterby echoed the sentiment as he talked fondly of Merano, who broke his neck and died instantly in a fall in the Becher Chase.

'He came from (Henry) Cecil,' Easterby said. 'He'd been with me seven years and never put a foot wrong. Never made a mistake in his life.'

For much of that life, Easterby has restricted Merano to a light programme of training and racing to protect his fragile legs. It is a paradox of National Hunt racing that trainers can spend so much time and energy preparing and cosseting their horses before allowing them out to take part in such a hazardous activity and, based on Saturday's figures, on such a hazardous course.

Easterby, though, is the last person who could be considered over-protective, and dismisses the suggestion that the Aintree fences are still formidable and potentially lethal obstacles. 'I think the fences have gone soft,' he said.

'Softer' might have been more appropriate, but in any case the ground is still hard enough as Adrian Maguire discovered when twice making a close inspection of one particular patch just after the second last fence. The season's leading rider is booked for two mounts at Catterick today, but was due to have some physiotherapy last night before deciding whether to miss a day's racing.

'I'm a bit sore. I hurt my hip at Southwell and fell on it again,' Maguire said. 'Howe Street somersaulted and landed right on my backside.'

Maguire, elated by the rest of this Aintree experience, believes the big fences still make high demands but would not subscribe to the suggestion that asking horses to jump them at the rapid pace of a two-mile race is asking for trouble.

'Howe Street just caught the top of the fence,' he said. 'You might get away with it at other places, but not there. The pace was not that great though. I think we go the same pace to the first in the National.'

Nevertheless, this first race over one lap of the track did not produce an edifying spectacle as just two horses slogged home. If that picture were to be repeated next year, the onus would be on the course executive to end the experiment.

There are other concerns that need to be addressed, principally that the standard of horses and riders taking part in any race over National fences is sufficiently high as to give reasonable expectation that the partnership should return intact; and that caution is exercised by riders when it is clear their mounts are tired, frightened, slow or unco-operative. 'Stop before a fence stops you' would be a reasonable motto.

Never forget, though, that it is not just jumping fences that exacts a high price. Fatherland, runner-up in the Irish 2,000 Guineas when trained by Vincent O'Brien, shattered a pastern in the Hollywood Derby on Saturday. He was put down once vets had ascertained the severity of the damage.

(Photograph omitted)