Racing's rulers will struggle to find the courage to keep this showpiece going

 

aintree

After slipping down the scree of the moral high ground last year, the world's most famous steeplechase finds itself clinging ever more precariously to past glories.

Once again the field was yesterday diverted round a fence on the second circuit while a stricken participant was tended to by medics. This time round it was a jockey – but it proved a valid portent of the race's attrition. For all the precautions taken since the macabre drama of 12 months ago, the loss of two more horses – According To Pete, and Synchronised – reiterated that this spectacle owes its defining character to some degree of danger.

In determining that risk, the sport itself needs to find new courage from somewhere. It is becoming harder to know quite where. In a society increasingly divorced from the rural origins of steeplechasing and the unsentimental lore of stockmanship, the margins of acceptability become tighter. More so, even, than that dividing Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy in the photo finish.

Within minutes, the trainer of the runner-up had suffered a far less palatable loss. Synchronised had fallen at Becher's. Synchronised got back to his feet, apparently unscathed, and bounded after the rest of the field. It was his own, instinctive gusto that proved his undoing, as he misjudged a later fence and broke down.

Incontestably, the sport's most iconic fence has been rendered much less hazardous. Its dropped landing became mirrored in Aintree's conscience: it too closely resembled a trap. Now, however, it has been so modified that traditionalists mutter about the race betraying its heritage. They are not necessarily so heartless. There were 70,000 people here, and millions of television viewers. They cannot all be sadists.

And who has the presumption to claim a more anguished sense of the sport's dilemmas than the owner of the winner, John Hales? In 1998, on the eve of the National, he had left Aintree inconsolable after the death of the best horse he has ever owned. As he grieved One Man, he doubted whether the rewards of the game could ever redress its blackest moments. Yesterday, as other hearts were broken, he concluded that he had been right to persevere. Beyond racing's parish the National seems trapped in a cycle of fear. The prelude to the race had seemed saturated with a residue of dread from last year.

Television viewers saw the pale, grey figure of Ruby Walsh in the jockeys' changing room, his head bowed. The modern master of Aintree had been invalided out by a hurdles fall earlier in the afternoon. To the layman, hurdles represent a relatively innocuous challenge for any horse. But that's the point. Accidents will happen.

That same layman will perhaps contend that Synchronised should have been withdrawn, after getting loose before the start. In reality, he had merely enjoyed exactly the sort of brief, innocent canter that usefully serves to loosen the muscles.

In the event it would prove harder to mock the suggestion – plainly, with no greater foundation in fact – that he had some grim, animal foreboding of his own doom. Two false starts then compounded the sense of tension. And, in the luckless way things then played out, the disaster seemed almost inexorable.

It had been barely a couple of hours since steeplechasing's new sensation, Sprinter Sacre, had launched himself gaily at the fences in a novice chase on the regular track. Here is a young braggart among horses, a creature of unfettered exuberance and self-regard. Yet his trainer increasingly observes him in a delicious agony. "You're getting to the stage now where anything but perfection will not do," Nicky Henderson said. "He is a joy to watch – when it's over. I said to his owner beforehand that it has been fun until now, but not any more. It's frightening."

Little could he know how presciently those words anticipated the National itself. What happened here was suggestive of some horrid malediction. Those who supervise the sport will feel cursed. They did all they could to meet the challenge of last year's distressing tableaux. If they themselves become petrified by their one and only national institution, then they must remember that fear has its uses, and the difference between fear and cowardice.

Courage does not denote an absence of fear, but a determination to conquer it. An era ended yesterday, with the BBC surrendering broadcasting rights to Channel 4 next year. The custodians of the National must somehow ensure no babies go out with the bathwater.

What they said...

Paul Nicholls (winning trainer)

"The worst thing you can do is to go too far. You make the fences smaller, they go faster and you get more fallers."

Julian Thick (Aintree's managing director)

"Horseracing is carefully regulatedand monitored but risk can never be completely removed."

Tim Morris (British Horseracing Authority)

"We do all we can to minimise risks while maintaining the unique character of the race."

Gavin Grant (RSPCA)

"The death of two horses is totally unacceptable."

John McCririck (TV pundit)

"We must review whether horses should run if getting loose. Although Synchronised went for less than two furlongs and was examined by vets no one could be certain about his well-being."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London