James Lawton: Stop these champions from running in the Grand National? You may as well try and suppress the wind
Where do we draw the line? Do we protect a Muhammad Ali from the instincts that drove him to such a unique place
If it had been ordained that the natural distance of Sprinter Sacre was the four miles, three furlongs and 100 yards of today’s Grand National all the animal rights protesters in the world might just have been obliged to fold away their placards.
This, of course, would not have invalidated some of their best marshalled arguments about the need for constant vigilance in the matter of equine safety.
However, the central case that the Grand National and those other great races that require horses to jump large obstacles and produce all of their courage and natural ability should in the end be consigned to history had perhaps never looked quite so at variance with the most compelling evidence before our eyes.
This said, yet again, that denying an animal like Sprinter Sacre or, for that matter Nicky Henderson’s third winner of the day in the Topham Chase, the ultimately dogged and clean-jumping Triolo D’Alene, a natural stage for the fulfilment of their most basic instincts would have been more than a waste.
It would have been an affront to the laws of nature. Just as men fight, horses run and jump, and that they are bred and encouraged to do so in a world so remote from the miseries of factory farming and international journeying to the most commercially convenient slaughterhouses is just one counter-argument to the claims of the abolitionists.
Of course it is not a clincher. There will always be a legitimate demand for the due care implicit in the latest reforms which include a plastic core to the fences which in the past have proved most unforgiving of any mistake by horse or jockey and a start line pushed 90 yards further away from the frenzies of the grandstand.
The start is certainly an area which needs considerably more attention, as we saw again when the Topham Chase was launched only at the third attempt. However, it cannot be said that racing is unmindful of the need to achieve a working compromise between a decent diligence and an understanding that there is a point where the challenge and the purpose of jump racing might be lost beyond recall.
Yesterday it could not have been more gloriously proclaimed by the wonder of Sprinter Sacre. He covered the extra four furlongs placed before him so effortlessly that we were once again in the realm he created so magically while winning the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. It is one that his jockey Barry Geraghty inhabits not as a dangerous and demanding workplace but something that passes for professional enchantment.
Stop Sprinter Sacre running, make him a hack, the recreational companion of someone inordinately privileged? You might as well attempt to suppress the wind.
Life is not so rich in colour and character and the sheer celebration of nature so perfectly expressed that such denial can be allowed even under the weight of armies of protest. When the green screens are placed on the course, when a fine horse is put down – or a jockey is airlifted to hospital – we know the cost of such spectacle and it is one that can never be lightly disregarded.
But, the question burns again today, where do we draw the line? Do we protect a Muhammad Ali from the instincts that drove him to such a unique place in the regard of the world, do we say that what he achieved was meaningless because of the punishment and the consequences he brought upon himself? Do we say also that because animals do not have a right to make such decisions for themselves they have to be protected from the kind of exultant expression of their natures which was so brilliantly exhibited yesterday – and has been so regularly down the years by the likes of Arkle and Kauto Star and, now so extraordinarily, by Sprinter Sacre?
Yes, we can do that if we like to but while we are doing it perhaps we could extend the mission and hunt down every element of risk, every activity that cannot be guaranteed a complete bill of safety.
Some have been outraged by the candour of Ted Walsh, the great Irish horseman whose son Ruby or daughter Katie might well bring in the winner at Aintree today. Some of his comments have certainly been bracing.
He cites the reaction of his wife to the dramas of their children and reports: “Helen will only be happy when they have jumped the last and she knows that they’re all right. What comes after that is a bonus. Being a mother her first instinct is for them to be safe. When Ruby gets a fall all she wants to hear is the commentator say, ‘Ruby is on his feet’ or when Kate takes a fall, ‘Katie Walsh is walking away’. Things that happen to humans are life-changing, things that happen to animals are terrible, but they’re animals. Anybody who says anything other than that is talking bullshit.
“You hear, ‘the dog died, we’ve had him for 10 years, everybody loved him,’ but he’s a dog and not your mother or your father.”
Walsh has never shown much patience for any inclination to merge the value of human and animal life and in the days between Cheltenham, and the catastrophic injuries to jockey JT McNamara, and the annual Aintree controversy he has rarely been more forthright.
His arguments have been guaranteed to outrage the animal rights protesters, and make squeamish those who might be inclined to agree behind closed doors or at least away from a microphone, and certainly the former group are unlikely to be mollified when he says, “I love the old horses, I have four of them up there in the field, 20 years of age and they will be with me until they’re ready to close their eyes. I will be sad the day they are put down, but they’re still horses.”
In this interview with The Sunday Times, Walsh made smithereens of the delicate position most trainers and jockeys feel obliged to take up, but how many can say that he is trying to impose his own reality?
What he is doing is fighting for a world which he plainly believes is under serious threat, one where it is wrong to draw a difference between the natures and the capacities of a horse and a man.
He is right, of course, and it is possible to say this while abhorring the smallest hint of callousness towards any form of animal life.
Today, certainly, it is enough for some of us that racing has not turned its back on the need to work hard to improve conditions of safety, to acknowledge that we cannot glory in the character and brilliance of a Sprinter Sacre while ignoring the need to protect him from avoidable risk.
The fact is, of course, that such a horse cannot perform to anywhere near the limits of its nature and sublime ability without some degree of hazard. That is the problem from which the Grand National will never be free and for some, no doubt, there is the growing sense that sooner or later it will be one that will prove insuperable.
So when we are moved by the splendour of a great horse, as we were so profoundly yesterday by the genius and the serene nerve of Sprinter Sacre, we cannot avoid the possibility that it is an emotion which may prove soon enough to be fleeting.
Ted Walsh may growl his protests, but he knows well enough how deeply the Grand National is under threat. He can, like some of the rest of us, hope only that today it enjoys the best of luck. The need for such good fortune grows, certainly, with the passing of each perilous year.
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