Leading Article: Horse race ruined, not many dead

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LET US not become too excited about the Grand National disaster. It was extremely painful for owners, trainers and jockeys. It was expensive for bookmakers and costly for the Government. But nobody was killed or physically hurt. Punters are getting their money back. This was not Zeebrugge or King's Cross, or even BCCI, Lloyd's or the Maxwell pension scandal.

The resonance of such moments depends on their timing. Had this happened in a period of national self-confidence it would have been dismissed as an aberration. Coming at a time of national self-doubt it will be used to reinforce the case that too many areas of British life, from the Government down, are run by bands of largely self-selected incompetents and amateurs. Comparisons will be made with other countries. Perhaps we shall find the Germans give diplomas in starting-gate technology.

The temptation to gallop in pursuit of such arguments is difficult to rein back because the bungle was, in many respects, typical. A relatively small slip set off a chain reaction that exposed the backwardness of the whole system - the antiquated technology of the starting tape, the hopelessly unsophisticated and poorly tested procedures for stopping the race, and the incompetence of the self-selected clique of amateurs that runs the Jockey Club.

Nobody can have watched the episode without being amazed that a race of such national prominence could be handled with such ineptitude. Why did anyone even think of starting the race with the tape hanging loosely almost to the ground? Why were the horses so close? How can someone wave a furled flag and expect to be seen? Why rely on flags? Given that the Jockey Club is known as a haven for retired military men, one trembles for the nation's defences.

Seizing such a chance for national self-castigation is legitimate up to a point. There are still too many pockets of privileged and protected amateurism in Britain, too many self-preserving hierarchies and self-regulated professions. In parts of the sporting world the division between gentlemen and players persists. But there is movement. Professionalism is spreading; British management is vastly better than it was 20 years ago. Even the Jockey Club has accepted the need for reform by preparing to hand over later this year to the British Horseracing Board, which will be more representative. Despair may, therefore, be tempered with a little hope. Aintree should provoke faster change, not greater gloom.