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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing / Sales Co-ordinator - OTE £25,000+

£10000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of staffing and r...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen Porter

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court is seeking...

Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court i...

Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support - Surrey - £24,000

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support Helpdesk / 1st L...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?