It won't be animal-welfare lobbyists that change the Grand National. It needs the wider public too

The recent changes to the infamous steeplechase will not stop the rise in horse mortalities

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The Independent Online

Channel 4 “relishes the challenge” of presenting the highly controversial Grand National now it has acquired the rights from the BBC. This announcement comes hot-on-the-heels of animal welfare organisations accusing Aintree and the British Horseracing Authority of not going far enough in their proposed improvements to the deadly spectacle.

I am one of those who believe that the measures taken by Aintree in line with their “ongoing commitment to safety and welfare” refer to anyone but the horses. With all this talk of no-go zones, capture pens, levelling and hard-core fencing the Grand National resembles a battleground more than ever before.

It is difficult to improve safety in an overcrowded field and at the same time maintain the same number of runners. Likewise, it is meaningless to commit to safer fence designs without adjusting the most lethal jump of them all, Beechers Brook. These are two key hazards which have played a significant role in the deaths of many horses over the years. Yet both are to persist without any modification despite urgent calls from the nation’s leading equine welfare specialists.

The Grand National is among the most famous steeplechases in the world. It has already cost the lives of 36 horses, with many more injured, and the death rate is only getting worse. Synchronised and According To Pete died in last year’s National, the second year running two horses have been killed in the race. The review of the 2012 Grand National presented an opportunity to prevent such deaths occurring again in the future. Instead, it looks to me as if the chance was blown – and fatalities are set to continue as a routine part of this public debacle. 

If an ‘extensive’ review by the industry’s regulatory authority fails to address the fundamental risks that have made the event so lethal in the past, is there any point in having such a review in the first place? I am sure that one of the main reasons for the authorities’ unwillingness to alter the race lies in a fear of jeopardising the “entertainment value” that makes the Grand National the event with the highest betting turnover of the year

However, if we are serious about achieving meaningful improvements for the welfare of these animals and setting high standards of equestrian safety to the rest of the world I can’t help feeling the horses would be better off, in the long term, if no changes are made to the 2013 race.

As these cruel deaths continue, public support for this infamous race might well drop off, and this could hurt the betting turnover. Only then, will the authorities be inclined to make real modifications that rein in carnage on the racecourse to “ensure the Grand National remains the world's greatest steeplechase”.

No matter how grand and ceremonial, a review that merely tinkers with the course minutiae every few years will achieve very little for the well-being and safety of the horses at stake. It is unlikely to save their lives. When the World Horse Welfare comes out with statements like it “welcomes these changes” it is letting the horses down and serves to reinforce established risks that are instrumental in causing tragic, often fatal, injuries. And this deadly annual custom is perpetuated.

If we are to succeed in bringing about an end to unnecessary animal exploitation the answer is to stop playing the welfare card. The horse racing industry won’t capitulate to pressures of animal welfare lobbying – it needs the wider public to join in too until it hits them where it hurts.