What do you get when you have forty horses, nearly 4.5 miles, and 30 of the toughest fences? Britain’s answer to bullfighting in the annual Grand National.
Every year in Aintree, Liverpool, in early spring, thousands of spectators flock to the racecourse to watch horses undertake a gruelling, stamina-sapping steeplechase. This year saw more than 150,000 people over three days all in the hope of claiming the pot prize, and often at the expense of the horses’ lives as they undertook the longest steeplechase in world Thoroughbred National Hunt jump racing.
Since its inauguration in 1839, the Grand National has become one of the most popular and controversial sports. According to Animal Aid, during the past ten Grand Nationals nine horses have died during or have been put down. What’s even worse is the fact that the death rate that the Grand National produces is five times above the average for other steeplechases, which are considerably shorter and have lower fences.
Of those nine deaths, four have been in the last two years with the fatalities of Ornais and Dooneys Gate in 2011 and Synchronised and According To Pete in 2012. Consequently, the media and public outrage at the increased number of deaths has put the race’s safety record into the spotlight. And rightly so. Sadly, the issue stems deeper than that, and since 2000, the lives of 38 horses have been claimed in what has become a grotesque form of entertainment.
But as 28-year-old Katie Walsh, a leading jockey who finished third on Seabass in 2012 said: “these horses are so well looked after. Better than some children, to be honest with you.”
How exactly horses whipped to the end of their lives, hemmed in on all sides by other horses as they gallop down a four and a half mile stretch of land, gasping for oxygen while being spurred on over demanding fences, are treated better than children is anyone’s guess.
Of course with arrogant attitudes like Ms Walsh’s it’s hardly surprising horse racing has seen so much abuse throughout its tragic existence with very little being done for improving safety issues. Consequently, it means that animal welfare gets a marginal look in as profits and entertainment take precedence.
Despite the fact that animal lovers and organisations such as Animal Aid and League Against Cruel Sports, have for years, entreated with the British Horseracing Authority to change the course and rules, the Grand National remains, as Channel 4’s marketing team dubbed it, “The original extreme sport.”
However, while the BHA claim that equine welfare is a priority and that safety improvements have been made horses continue to suffer severe injuries, ranging from broken necks, legs and back to heart attacks.
Of the 30 fences the one that has spectators holding their breath is the infamous Becher’s Brook. In the last 50 years this fence has claimed the lives of ten horses.
Positioned on a diagonal, the four foot ten inch hurdle has a covered ditch, and a drop on the landing side of between six and ten inches in what is measured as the biggest drop being closest to the inside rail. As horses can’t see over the fence they don’t know what to expect with many experiencing severe falls and often fatalities on the other side.
And it was through this fence that claimed the lives of According To Pete, Synchronised and Dooneys Gate.
In essence, the Grand National is a cruel sport, pure and simple. People like Walsh are fools to think otherwise and wouldn’t appreciate the position they were in if they were suddenly flogged for four and a half miles over fences all in the name of money.
With a race like this there are so many negatives against it that more must be done to improve it. When the race began in 1839 through to 1999, the average number of horses running was below 29. However, in 2000, that number jumped to 40 where it now stands. Due to this overcrowding and the speed horses’ travel at it contributed to the early deaths of Ornais and Dooneys Gate at Becher’s Brook.
While preparations for 2013 may have seen changes to certain fences the possibility of horse fatalities in future races is not eradicated. Becher’s Brook is just one fence that advocates want removed, and yet it still remains, while horse numbers should be dropped from the current 40. With only 37 per cent of horses actually finishing the race it shows the inherently extreme conditions that the horses have to go through with many of them only making it halfway.
Considering the expense horses require for their uptake you would think more people would want to save them instead of destroying them needlessly. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to changing the views of people like Walsh when they say: “These things happen, and they are horses at the end of the day.”