Pressure grows for Grand National safety improvements

Concern follows deaths of two horses and jockey falling into coma

The Minister for Sport, Hugh Robertson, is being urged to put pressure on the racing authorities to improve safety at the Grand National after last weekend's race claimed the lives of two horses and left a jockey in a coma.

MPs and other high-profile figures came forward yesterday to express their concern that the death toll of 20 horses since 2000 was too high a price to pay for the Aintree race, with its notorious towering fences, to continue in its current format.

When Parliament reconvenes at the end of the month, MPs intend to call on the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to ask Mr Robertson to hold talks with the British Horseracing Authority and Aintree Racecourse to take measures to make the National Hunt race less lethal.

Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East, said: "The Sports minister ought to talk to people in the industry to see what they are willing to do. We could apply pressure to the horse-racing authorities to ensure that the course is made safe."

She compared the treatment of horses in the race to that of animals in a circus. "I'm sure the circus people would say elephants enjoy prancing around on their back legs. I think there's a parallel to be drawn but people haven't really addressed their minds to it," she said. "Is there a way where it would be very rare for a horse to be put down or a jockey to be seriously injured, without taking away from the spectacle?"

The BBC radio presenter Mark Radcliffe said: "I would think that there have to be some changes, really. I accept that jockeys will pull up if they feel there are danger signs but the pressure to win, and the money riding on it, must mean that only the strongest-willed jockeys will take this option."

He said that some of the National fences were "unnecessarily brutal with unreasonable drops" and should be modified. "There is also loose foliage on the tops of the fences making it more or less certain that some horses will misjudge the height whilst jumping through this soft material and will catch their hooves on the harder structure beneath, making a fall pretty much inevitable. I'm sure that racehorses are generally amongst the best-cared-for animals we have, but that doesn't excuse unreasonable risks being forced on them in race situations."

Two horses, Ornais and Dooneys Gate, broke their backs and died in Saturday's famous steeplechase, which left winner Ballabriggs suffering from dehydration and its rider, Jason Maguire, punished for overuse of the whip. Jockey Peter Toole was last night still in a coma after a fall in an earlier race at the Aintree meeting.

The actress Gemma Atkinson said: "I've always found the sport uncomfortable to watch, especially when the horses are whipped so many times. Changes need to be made."

But Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley and a racehorse owner, said the fences should not be made easier. "That would take away the greatest aspect of all, which is the challenge to horse and jockey," he said. "It would only be done to appease fanatics who can't be appeased anyway."