Face of great race may need altering

Mon, Apr 16, 2012, 01:00

THE GRAND National is the ultimate showpiece of a sport that sells itself on “thrills n’spills” and while Neptune Collonges’s last-gap victory on Saturday provided perhaps the most exciting finish in National history, the deaths of two more horses in the world’s most famous steeplechase have invariably provoked questions as to whether the spills are too high a price to pay for the thrills.

The deaths of the Gold Cup hero Synchronised and According To Pete, both of which came down at Bechers Brook, cast a deadly pall over a race already the focus of at least some public unease about why animals should pay the ultimate price for 10 minutes of public entertainment worth hundreds of millions of euro.

Coming on the back of two other deaths in the previous year’s National, and the whip furore over the winner Ballabriggs, a thrilling success for Neptune Collonges over Sunnyhillboy in the last stride could have been a PR fillip for an industry still desperately unsure of itself and its relationship to the wider world.

Instead the focus has inevitably centred on two more Grand National deaths and pictures broadcast around the world of deeply upset connections following confirmation that Synchronised had been put down.

There are of course plenty people within racing, especially it has to be said, here in Ireland, prepared to scoff at such introspection, describing death and serious injury in such an inherently risky sport as inevitable. That risk really strikes home when it is jockeys that pay a terrible cost for keeping the show on the road. But then jockeys choose to do what they do.

The mass of grey that surrounds the ethical area of asking dumb animals to put themselves at risk for entertainment purposes is only emphasised by what happened the two unfortunate horses at Aintree.

Synchronised fell at Bechers first time round, got up, galloped on without a jockey, and sustained his fatal leg injury on the loose. According To Pete’s life-ending leg injury was if anything even more unfortunate. He looked to jump Bechers second time round perfectly well but was brought down by a faller. In both cases the most famous obstacle in jump racing took a toll but in a far from straight-forward manner.

It’s that lack of black-and-white that undermines the wilder accusations of some of the National’s fiercest critics. There is also the reality that in a world containing so much intentional cruelty, the pact that exists between man and a breed of horse specifically raised over centuries to race can hardly be described as Faustian. And yet jump racing does have to continue to acknowledge this moral dilemma.

Strangely enough its biggest ally could yet turn out to be the RSPCA, a body frequently categorised as an opponent. After the race, it pointed out that it sees the National as having a future. But David Muir, an equine consultant to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said that he would like to see drop fences removed before next year’s race.

“I think the Grand National has a future if it changes and makes the risk factors lower and more acceptable,” Muir said. “If racing is to continue, racing must realise that people are concerned about horse fatalities on racecourses and the impetus to reduce the risk factor has to be greater.”

Removing drop fences would mean removing the essential challenge of Bechers Brook and other famous obstacles such as Valentines. It would mean fundamentally altering the face of a race that has exerted a hold on the public imagination for 165 years.

That will have many up in arms, and not just cartoon traditionalists, because “thrills n’spills” are what the Grand National is all about. Without that lottery element it’s just another race. But there’s a wider context to this.

The National is the race which throws the deadly toll National Hunt racing can exert into the harshest light of public opinion. At most other times of the year, that same public manage to get along quite happily without acknowledging the sport at all. It is in this context that the role of a body like the RSPCA becomes crucial.

If it believes the National has a future, then its recommendations on the National should be taken seriously. If that means the face of the great race is altered it may well be a price worth paying for the overall benefit of jump racing.