Millions watch as two horses die in Grand National

Field diverted for the first time around carnage as animal rights campaigners condemn 'ritual cruelty'

The Grand National had to change course for the first time in its history yesterday after two horses were killed in front of racegoers and millions watching on television.

Nine-year-old Ornais broke his neck at the fourth fence and, seconds later, Dooneys Gate died after breaking his back at the Becher's Brook obstacle, notorious for the number of horses and jockeys who have failed to clear it over the years.

Meanwhile, Ballabriggs, the 14-1 winner of the race, was whisked back to the stables as soon as he crossed the line to be treated for dehydration in the soaring temperatures. More than half of the 40 starters did not finish the four-and- a-half mile race.

Animal rights groups reacted by describing the race, known as the world's greatest steeplechase with a massive worldwide audience, as "ritual animal cruelty" and urged people to give up their once-a-year flutter.

Horses have died in the race before, but rarely have injuries and falls been caught by such dramatic close-hand television footage. Angry viewers following the action on the BBC commented on Twitter about how the horses lying dead on the course were described as "obstacles" as the race detoured around the fences on the second lap. It is thought to be the first time the race has bypassed fences because of fatalities.

As the cameras tracked the leaders on the final circuit, viewers could clearly make out the tarpaulins drawn around one of the horses, which had died almost instantly. The BBC, whose coverage was fronted by Clare Balding, said it had covered the deaths "with as much sensitivity as possible". Commentators did not mention the fatalities on the traditional re-run footage after the race.

Ornais's trainer, Paul Nicholls, one of the most successful in the sport, said: "He was a very good novice chaser in his early days. We looked after him through a severe leg injury for two years and it is bad luck and very sad to lose a horse this way." Dooneys Gate, who was 10, was already dead when vets reached him on the course.

A group of 50 protesters, angry at the demands on the runners, had picketed the Liverpool racecourse before the meeting.

Tony Moore, the chairman of the Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe, said: "If they really care about horses, why do owners, jockeys and trainers put them through the ordeal? These deaths are not only sad, they are inevitable."

Andrew Tyler from Animal Aid added: "It should have no future in a civilised country. It is particularly callous and disgusting that a member of the commentary team should describe the dead horses as the lay on the course as an obstacle."

Julian Thick, the managing director at Aintree, said: "Safety is the first priority. We are desperately sad at the accidents and our thoughts go out to the connections of Ornais and Dooneys Gate. When a horse gets hurt, everyone is deeply upset. We will redouble our efforts to make sure that everyone involved in the event is able to participate in safety and comfort."