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."