Bewitching race is bedevilled by a brutal reality

The spectacle became as unsparing as the task. To see Jason Maguire enter the winner's enclosure on foot, carrying his saddle, was to know that none of these horses had anything left to give. They had been asked the hardest of questions, and could now leave it to their masters to come up with a few answers of their own.

For this was as gut-wrenchingly intense a piece of sporting theatre as you will see. The warm spring sunshine may have gladdened the gaudy Merseyside throng, but it would soon cast icy shadows.

As soon as he pulled up, Maguire leapt off Ballabriggs so the saddle could be ripped off and buckets of water flung across his mount's heaving flanks. Tony McCoy, third on Don't Push It, quickly followed suit. So long as they kept the horses moving, they knew they should be all right. At some point, however, everyone else would have to stop and think about what they had seen.

The field had bypassed two fences on the second circuit, including Becher's Brook itself. In each case, it was a macabre impossibility not to know why. At one, the nation glimpsed a blanket over what was unmistakably a carcass. At the next, they saw screens dignifying the final moments of some other stricken creature.

The sport knew, then, that it would again face the sort of challenges that it has met, on the whole, very responsibly in recent years. It would have to remind shocked bystanders that nobody had a right of moral condescension to those who had tended and cherished Ornais and Dooneys Gate, over long years, in all weathers. These returned last night to empty stables. Even in this darkest hour, however, they will comprehend that the thoroughbred population would be reduced far more thoroughly without the sport that gives them purpose as well as love.

And, when it came down to the business end, the despair of neutrals was immediately leavened by the sense that horses, and horsemen, will reliably fortify us against even the most harrowing misadventure. Millions watched the finish with a fresh grasp of the courage being exhibited by the protagonists.

And, as the blurred stampede resolved itself into an agonised duel between Ballabriggs and Oscar Time, indifference would have required a detachment itself suggestive of the very callousness perceived by the race's critics.

The winner is trained by a man who is no longer just Ginger McCain's son. Instead, the trainer of Red Rum will soon become known as Donald McCain's father. For many, the first they knew of McCain Jnr was this broad-shouldered fellow ducking under the rails, half-waddling, half-sprinting to embrace Maguire. Those who follow the sport for the other 364 days of the year, however, could tell you that he has fast turned the strange genius in his blood into something rather more serious. Ginger stabled Red Rum behind a second-hand car showroom in Southport, and galloped him over the beach. Donald already has the most respected jumps stable in the north.

And the runner-up was ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen, whose performance embellished a Corinthian career in the very best traditions of the sport. Last month this dashing young amateur had won the Gold Cup, in the same chocolate-and-orange silks of his father. Here he was completing his credentials as arguably the most accomplished rider of his generation over these fences – a generation, be it noted, that includes the most prolific jockey of all time, in McCoy, and perhaps the most admired, in Ruby Walsh.

Even as your heart rebelled, then, your head told you that yesterday would resonate heroism for so long as society can still abide the discomforts entailed in proving it. It was monstrous, and it was magical.

Ginger, an octogenarian who delights in provoking the tender sensibilities of the age, will scoff at the former; but those goaded by him should still acknowledge the latter. And if either has simple answers, then they are not asking the right questions.