The unfortunate death of two equine athletes during the running of Saturday's Grand National has brought the predictable howls of indignation from the animal rights lobby. They want the race banned, and the sooner the better. Having been granted a partial victory with the hunting ban, they may sense that a Grand National ban is on the cards. They'd be wrong.
The breeding and racing of horses is a huge, multi-billion-pound industry that has grown up over more than 200 years. Consider if you will that more than 70,000 people attended the record-breaking Grand National, millions watched the spectacle on television, and more than £300m was wagered with bookmakers on the outcome. Behind that there is a huge breeding industry and a raft of owners, trainers, stable staff, and jockeys that dictates the racing industry.
Race horses live a wonderful life. They are fed and watered, cosseted, pampered, and trained to peak fitness in order that they might entertain us and keep the wheels of the bookmaking industry well oiled. Every week on Britain's race tracks, they are horribly injured and sometimes killed. For the most part it goes unreported by an industry that prefers to keep its own counsel and is wary of outsiders.
Some argue that, given the choice, a race horse would prefer to stay firmly behind a stable door, eating its head off, than go racing for the day. I am not sure about that. Every race horse that I have sat on seems to be very keen to get on with the job. They buck and rear and pull and barge. They are brutal, unforgiving animals who are bred to be trained and raced on one of the numerous tracks dotted around the UK.
I have lived the life of a jockey. It is worth asking what drives these people, and all who work with horses in the racing industry. It is a tough world, fraught with danger. According to the British Racing School, the average wage in East Anglia is £19,000. The average wage in Newmarket is £14,000. The industry attracts waifs and strays from all backgrounds, and very many eastern European and Asian employees. They do it because they love the horses.
Go into any stable yard and look through the accident book and there you will find recorded a catalogue of broken arms, legs and necks – career-ending injuries. The jobs are poorly paid and the conditions often harsh. Add to that the constant starving, the endless energy-sapping regime, and the early starts and it is a wonder that anyone goes into the industry at all.
It is a savage existence, but one where all is forgiven by the love they all have for the animals at its core. It is an addiction that I have witnessed first hand. The miscreant, bullying equine who is patted and fed and cuddled to obsession – it's the same in every racing yard up and down the country. Many criticisms can be levelled at the racing industry but callousness and cruelty is not one of them.
The Grand National is today safer than it has ever been. Fences are lower, the ground softer, the risk less. Never mind it is the supreme test for both horse and jockey; the challenge is huge, and the rewards great.
But as with every sporting endeavour, tragedy can and does strike. It is the success of the Grand National as a spectacle that brings accidents like those on Saturday into stark focus – but that doesn't mean the race should be banned. Rather, it should be celebrated for what it is, and the racing authorities should be applauded for creating a spectacle to match any other.
The Grand National is a welcome fillip to an otherwise pretty beleaguered industry. Leave it alone.
Dominic Prince is the author of 'From Jumbo to Jockey', a memoir about the racing industry (Fourth Estate, January 2011)Reuse content