The Grand National: Should it be banned, or simply made safer?

Three experts express their views on whether horse racing is cruel or not

As the annual event approaches, the deaths of two horses last year and the same number the year before have raised questions about the ethics of a race with such a high casualty rate. Should it be banned, or simply made safer?

The race owes its unique status precisely to its proximity to the margin of acceptable risk

Chris McGrath, Racing Correspondent

Of all the charges levelled against its most famous institution, only one can be rejected by horse racing as downright fatuous. And that is the notion that its professional community is insensitive to the moral challenges raised by the Grand National, or indeed any race over jumps.

Nobody should be arrogant enough to presume they suffer a deeper anguish, when things do go wrong, than is felt by those who lavish such attention and affection upon their charges – 365 days a year, in all weathers – and return from the races with just a bridle hanging loose in their horsebox. It should count for something that these people find it in their hearts to persevere.

But the sport must resist any temptation to answer its critics with an intolerance of its own. For while it is entitled to disregard those inflamed by rancour or bile, it must give due consideration to all civilised counsel offered from the world beyond its parish walls. As society changes, after all, so may the threshold of acceptable risk set by a reasonable person.

Any such person, equally, will acknowledge that his or her judgement cannot be especially well-informed, so long as it is based upon watching one race a year.

If racing continues to consult society – as represented by welfare charities, in conjunction with which further changes to the course have been made this year – then it should remain a reciprocal process.

The last two Nationals have been harrowing. The visceral distress of 2011, when the field passed those tarpaulins and screens on the second circuit, was compounded by two more fatalities last year.

After races on the first days of the meeting had seemed to vindicate modifications made in the meantime, it began to seem as though the National was now cursed.

But those prepared to persevere in mutual education found that these latest losses were freakish to the point of being unaccountable.

Synchronised suffered a fatal injury while loose, having discarded his jockey, and According To Pete collided with another horse.

Both disasters highlighted the risks to which horses are routinely exposed, in varying degrees, by jump racing. You can lose a horse in the most innocuous environments. They sustain irreparable damage in cantering over cushioned training surfaces, even while idling in stables or paddocks. Any thoroughbred will be exposed to some danger in pursuit of its own instincts. (By the way, try making one jump round Aintree against its will.)

But the question here is not whether their use for sport is legitimate. To that extent, it is wholesome that everyone should sometimes be made to confront what can be at stake – just as people who eat meat should not be permitted ignorance of abattoir procedures.

For thoroughbreds and cattle alike, their different uses to mankind are what spare them from decimation to a small zoo population.

In both cases, it is imperative that mankind retain a clear conscience in the way it handles them.

That is the challenge for the National. It owes its unique status precisely to its proximity to the margin of acceptable risk.

For now, society at large remains broadly enthused by watching and betting on the race, as currently configured.

Perhaps some day thoughtful, informed voices will contend that some of its defining qualities – as the ultimate test of agility and stamina for horse and rider – take it beyond that margin.

For now, however, those voices caution that smaller fences are jumped quicker, that speed kills as much as anything. And they also acknowledge that even a fatal accident does not automatically reflect some unacceptable risk.

Sometimes terrible incidents take place where there is  neither culpability or carelessness by anyone involved

David P Muir, Equine Consultant to the RSPCA

Neither I nor the RSPCA condone or attempt to justify the death of any racehorse. The Society will always seek change where there is unacceptable risk of tragedies occurring.

However, I accept that sometimes terrible incidents take place where there is neither culpability nor carelessness by anyone involved. This applies to horse racing as it does to all walks of life.

The 10 years leading up to 2011 were the safest in modern Grand National history. But the four deaths in 2011 and 2012 and the subsequent media attention – together with the concerns raised by the RSPCA – prompted urgent action. The Society demanded comprehensive scrutiny of the race format and offered seven options for change (five of which have been realised). I am now confident that the racing industry accepts that radical change was needed to ensure the future of the race to accommodate the modern racehorse.

The new plastic core fences introduced this year are undoubtedly a major and welcome change, emulating the type of fence and resistance the horses meet elsewhere. Concerns have been raised that the altered fences may jump faster and my question in this respect is; do the horses determine the speed in a race, or is it the jockeys?

My view on Becher’s Brook has always been that the more gifted horses are able to cope with the many facets this fence offered. However, the drop, the turn, the adverse slope on landing, the solid cores, the adverse angle on the approach and the potential of bunching have, over the years created a fence where horses predictably fell with fatal consequences. Once again substantial changes have been made with the solid core replaced, the drop reduced and adverse slope on landing addressed. The fence jumped well on the first time tried in December, however, I will keep my counsel as to whether these changes are effective when the 40 horses in the Grand National race have negotiated this obstacle.

The high number of horses in the race, 40, naturally increases the likelihood of incident and offers the potential of bunching or horses and fallers getting in each others’ way with tragic consequences. Responding to the concerns of recent years I would have thought it would have been more prudent to help assure the future of this race to reduce the logistical  factor to 30.

There is one major factor that is rarely discussed and that is the jockey’s responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of his mount. The inevitable rush to the first fence has seen many incidents where speed has increased the risk of falling. In a four-and-a-half mile race over 30 fences, surely the jockey’s thoughts should include the competent jumping of the initial fences to give his horse familiarity and confidence for the many fences to be negotiated rather than seek to dominate a leading position from the start. I have a great deal of admiration for the bravery shown by jockeys and ask that they keep within the whip restrictions as overuse of the whip aid is simply unacceptable especially in tired horses.

The stance of the RSPCA in racing is one of constructive, and where necessary critical, dialogue, and irrespective of the results of this year’s race this will continue for the benefit of the racehorse.

It isn’t an ‘accident’ when horses  somersault over Becher’s Brook or Valentine’s

Andrew Tyler, Director of Animal Aid

The truth about the Grand National is encapsulated in the boastful tagline of Channel 4’s advert for the race: “the original extreme sport”. In its simulated version of the race we see a jockey crash to the ground but no horses fall. In reality, it is the horses who face the most severe risk at Aintree. Eleven have been killed in the National since 2000 – four in the past two years. Another 11 have died in other races on the same course. No jockeys – who can choose whether to take part – have perished.

Of course, Animal Aid is mindful of the serious injuries suffered by JT McNamara at Cheltenham last month. We don’t want to see jockeys hurt. But let’s get some perspective. In March 2007, Animal Aid launched an online database of horse fatalities on British racecourses. Since then, we have verified 944 equine deaths – and the true figure is very likely to be 1,200 or more. We know of no jockey who has died racing in Britain during that period.

The National’s traditional selling point has been precisely its ability to bring horses down in a spectacularly brutal manner. It isn’t an “accident” when horses somersault over Becher’s Brook or Valentine’s. The course was designed to that end. But this isn’t a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in which the protagonists bounce back to their feet. In the National, real bones are broken. The problem for the racing authorities in 2013 is that public sentiment is shifting against such callous animal exploitation – with a poll last year showing that most people who hold an opinion regard the race as cruel.

And so Aintree and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) must either eliminate those elements that make the National five times more lethal than the average British jump race, or continue with their series of “safety improvements” (softening the core of the fences, improving the  starting arrangements, etc), while leaving the essentials unchanged. They have chosen the latter.

To try to pacify an increasingly disgruntled public, they are engaging in some ripe doublespeak. The notorious Becher’s Brook has brought down three of the four horses which died at the past two Nationals, yet Aintree’s chairman described those fatalities as “freak accidents”. More incredibly, the BHA’s then director of equine science and welfare told a meeting of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare last October that the purpose of Becher’s Brook is “to keep the speed of the race down and the field spread”.

Even after this year’s “safety measures”, Becher’s remains lethal for many reasons, including its height, spread, diagonal angle of approach, the fact that it comes at the end of a fast straight of five demanding fences, and because the landing side is still lower than the take-off side.

As for the course in general, numerous perversely hazardous features remain. Among them: an overcrowded field of 40 horses; a uniquely long distance, with more fences per mile than any other race; and obstacles that vary in height and design, unlike the uniform fences found on other British courses. It is little wonder an average of only 37 per cent of horses have managed to finish the race in the past ten years.

We keep hearing that racehorses are deeply cherished and cosseted. In reality, racing treats thoroughbreds as reproducible commodities, killing or dumping thousands every year when they fail to make the grade and when their racing days are over.

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