Aintree faces the ultimate question: how can they save the National?

Horses' deaths likely to force smaller fields and further diluting of course's difficulty

The race was already at a crossroads. Now, in venturing diffidently forwards, it has suffered another tragic collision. As ever, immediate perspectives will be distorted by recrimination and remorse. Many barbs aimed at Aintree will be ignorant, some downright idiotic, but that reality will not tempt its custodians into any kind of denial. They have a big problem, and they know it.

Admittedly, they might trace these fresh torments to sheer ill-luck. Substantially tamed since last year, when millions were horrified by the death of two horses in the race, Becher's Brook had been slickly cleared in a race on Friday. In the John Smith's Grand National, however, it was at this iconic obstacle that two horses would lose their riders – and ultimately their lives.

According To Pete was fatally injured, brought down by another horse on the second circuit. Synchronised, however, had leapt to his feet and set off eagerly after the other horses. Sadly, the innate gusto of the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner contained the seeds of his own destruction as he misjudged a later fence – most unusually, in a riderless horse – and broke down.

Strictly in its consequences, the fact that Synchronised had briefly got loose beforehand must be counted a red herring. Certainly those who perceived some anticipatory distress in the poor creature are guilty of precisely the sort of anthropomorphism that so obscures the sport's genuine dilemmas. The National, however, has such unique reach that cosmetic considerations will be granted parity – even by those who run the sport – with more informed judgements.

Racing can try to educate the layman, about the relative "cruelty" of those, on the one hand, who pronounce themselves animal lovers, while caging domestic pets; and those, on the other, who respectfully dedicate their lives and love to maximising equine vitality. But acceptable risk will keep changing – in tandem, for better or worse, with an increasingly urban society. That is why racing continues to consult the more responsible welfare lobbies; and why it may prove necessary to contemplate still further concessions.

Some consideration will doubtless be given, for instance, to finally levelling the remaining pitch at Becher's Brook; or reduction of the safety limit from 40 runners, not least if the fences are nowadays less likely to thin out traffic. Several mishaps on Saturday appeared to result from crowding.

To the late Ginger McCain, any further emasculation of Aintree would betray the heritage of Red Rum and others whose names immortalise its defining chaos, such as Foinavon. He would also ask why record crowds came only a year after such graphic tragedy.

But then his enjoyable bluster would hardly assist Aintree in its present need. Instead it finds in David Muir, the RSPCA's equine consultant, a temperate tone that must be prized in a debate prone to emotional fury. "Is the race cruel?" Muir asked. "No one put a horse into this race to see it suffer, or die for their own gratification. That would be a definition of the word 'cruel'." But he also anticipates "rolling change, without taking away the ethos of the National, over the next few years".

Racehorses will never be immune to some degree of risk, and this test is defined as the most exacting of all. Perhaps Jonjo O'Neill, his trainer, would not have risked Synchronised had Becher's remained as unsparing as when it claimed another Gold Cup winner, Alverton, in his riding days. As it was, his 1979 scars were pitiably ripped open on Saturday. Having seen another of his horses caught in the very last stride, O'Neill suddenly had his disappointment placed in harrowing perspective.

But then there were also tears around the winner. John Hales, owner of Neptune Collonges, remains tormented by the day he lost One Man, over the regular fences here in 1998. And Daryl Jacob, his jockey, devoted his success to Kieran Kelly, his best friend, killed in a fall at Kilbeggan in 2003. Only the most arrogant outsiders would presume a greater grasp of the stakes.

On Saturday Italy's entire football programme was abruptly called off after the death of Piermario Morosini, a man in his prime: there is a spectrum of risk in most sporting exertion. There had been one other fatality at Aintree, over three days: a horse galloping over the flat, on beautifully prepared turf. No less than cattle, if everyone were vegetarian, horses would be confined to zoos if not harnessed to human use. And that really would be cruel. But racing must accept the definition of unconscionable hazard is susceptible to change.

Paul Bittar, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, pledges neither complacency nor haste. "The evidence indicates that improvements in safety over the years have led to an overall decrease in injury and fatalities, both on the National course and racing in general," he said yesterday.

"It is important these matters be judged over a period of time. The decade since 2000 was the safest on record for the National with a fatality rate of 1.5 per cent compared to 3.3 per cent at the start of the 1990s. Sadly, there have been two fatalities in each of the last two runnings. Naturally our objective is for there to be none, but we also recognise we cannot remove risk altogether from such a competitive activity."

Fallers and finishers

Fence 1 Viking Blond (fell).

2 Junior (fell), West End Rocker (fell).

5 State of Play (unseated rider),

Chicago Grey (brought down),

Rare Bob (brought down).

6 Synchronised (fell).

7 Alfa Beat (fell).

8 Black Apalachi (fell),

Tatenen (unseated),

Organisedconfusion (unseated),

Killyglen (unseated),

Becauseicouldntsee (unseated).

10 Treacle (fell), Arbor Supreme (unseated).

11 Giles Cross (pulled up).

15 Always Right (unseated).

17 Quiscover Fontaine (fell).

19 Vic Venturi (refused),

Deep Purple (pulled up).

22 On His Own (fell),

According to Pete (brought down),

Mon Mome (pulled up),

Postmaster (pulled up).

27 Weird Al (fell).

Where they finished

1 Neptune Collonges 33-1, 2 Sunnyhillboy 16-1, 3 Seabass 8-1 Jt Fav, 4 Cappa Bleu 16-1, 5 In Compliance 100-1, 6 Ballabriggs 12-1, 7 Hello Bud 33-1, 8 Tharawaat 125-1, 9 Shakalakaboomboom 8-1 Jt fav, 10 Swing Bill 100-1, 11 The Midnight Club 40-1, 12 Planet Of Sound 33-1, 13 Neptune Equester 100-1, 14 Calgary Bay 33-1, 15 Midnight Haze 80-1

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