Katie Walsh has her heart set on making history tomorrow, by becoming the first woman to win the Grand National, but even that breakthrough would not console her for the distress she experienced over the big fences yesterday.
Walsh’s mount, Battlefront, collapsed and died shortly after being pulled up in the John Smith’s Fox Hunters’ Chase. The tragedy represents an excruciating start to the meeting for Aintree officials, who have responded to fatalities in each of the last two Nationals with a series of modifications to the controversial course.
They had been hoping that Walsh could generate redemptive headlines when she again teams up with Seabass, trained by her father and third in the National last year. Moreover the only horse ahead of Seabass in the betting is On His Own, ridden by her brother, Ruby. Instead they found themselves once again stressing that yesterday’s disaster could in no obvious way be attributable to the unique demands of the National course. Battlefront had jumped superbly until tiring and losing his position before the 15th fence.
John Baker, director of Aintree racecourse, sought to put the incident in context. “British racing is open that you can never remove all risk from horseracing, as with any sport,” he said. “However, welfare standards are very high and equine fatalities are rare, with a fatality rate of just 0.2 per cent from 90,000 runners each year.”
Last year the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Synchronised, had been unharmed in a fall during the Grand National but freakishly suffered a fatal injury while galloping loose. According To Pete likewise was lost to an accident that might have occurred in a more innocuous environment, when colliding with another horse. None the less a number of changes have since been made to the course, and it was noticeable yesterday that many horses were able to brush through fences with impunity. Five of the 24 runners in the Fox Hunters’ Chase, the first of the meeting over the National course, fell or unseated their riders.
More flexible cores have been installed in the fences, and the ground has also been levelled off at several jumps. In an effort to curb the early pace, meanwhile, the National start has been moved 90 yards closer to the first fence. But calls to reduce the field size have been rejected. “We want to maintain the character, tradition and history of the National,” Baker stressed. “To have 40 runners is unique to the race and important to us. The track is wide enough to cope with that number.”