Grand National – Carnage or Spectacle?

Racehorses falling at fence

The excitement of the 2019 Grand National is over and it is time for the usual post mortem. One horse killed and another taken away by ambulance appears according to the media and racing authorities to have been a pretty good result. Two other horses, Forest des Aigles and Crucial Role, were also euthanised the day before but have received little attention. Track authorities and the British Horse Association (BHA) are obviously saddened again and Dickon White, of the Jockey Club  Stated:

“As a sport of animal lovers, we wanted every horse to come home – and sadly that’s not been the case with Up For Review”

a statement which makes it is difficult to get one’s head round what qualifies as being an animal lover these days. The media state that “38 runners returned safely” – but returned safely to where? Obviously their stable as they didn’t finish the race. Only 19 (47%) out of 40 actually past the finishing post.

Riderless race horse

It is not difficult to deduce from the statistics that most of the horses present just provide the spectacle and have no chance at all of competing or finishing the race. People watch the National for the excitement and anticipation of the stampede to the first fence when everyone holds their breath to see if they get over safely or fall. But do some racegoers secretly hope that there will be a spectacular pile up rather like in Formula One when the cars approach the first bend  or the cycle riders in the Tour de France. There is a certain element of wishing for tragedy as no one wants a “boring”race.

Carnage at the fences.

This year at the first fence Up For Review was brought down by another faller and was fatally injured and at the sixth fence three fell and one pulled up. So we had already lost 8 horses by the sixth fence and then the race continued without incident until we get to the 21st fence where a horse pulled up. Horses were then pulled up or refused at the 25th, 26th, and at the 27th a rider was unseated, then 4 horses refused or pulled up at the 28th and 5 at the 29th.

There is an obvious pattern here: the attrition rate increases the further into the race they get when more horses find that the going is too tough. These are all horses that are perhaps not fit or strong enough to last the course – the cannon fodder to make the race a spectacle and for who the race is too much of a challenge. It’s not science, but seems logical that horses tire just like humans in marathons or steeplechases and cannot find that last effort to finish.

The race is 14 fences too long & involves too many horses.

The racing fraternity are proud that the National is the longest National Hunt race in Britain and that it is the ultimate test of horse and jockey jumping 30 fences over a distance of 2.25 miles. And this is the problem. The race is too long, has too many high jumps and too many participants.

Many campaigners including the RSPCA believe the best way forward is to work with the authorities to improve the welfare of the horses during the race which they state they have done successfully for the last thirty years and list many so-called improvements, but most of these are just peripheral to the main problem. Thirty years on we still have horses dying and suffering and being injured and more importantly horses being pushed beyond their limits.

There is no chance of the race being banished in the foreseeable future because of all the tradition and history behind it just like fox-hunting, not to mention the huge financial benefits to everyone involved. And of course supporters want carnage and spectacle not just any old horse race, because this is what they watch it for. The only way of reducing the suffering is to shorten the race to one lap of the course, cut the numbers involved and lower the fences, but this is never going to happen.

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Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.