Death of Battlefront not down to unsafe course
Grand National course presents a fair challenge for horses and riders, writes Greg Wood at Aintree
Battlefront ridden by Katie Walsh (right, red cap) clears The Chair in the Fox Hunters' Chase. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
The focus on the Grand National course at this year's Aintree Festival meeting is so intense that the fact that the famous fences had nothing to do with the death of Battlefront on Thursday in the's Fox Hunters' Chase was never likely to make much difference to the reaction.
Nearly 100 horses went out to race here on Thursday afternoon, and the only one that failed to return to its stable was not among the handful to have suffered a fall.
Battlefront suffered a heart attack, as horses, and humans, occasionally do, but he collapsed after jumping 14 of the National's big spruce fences, and that was enough to put the Aintree executive on the defensive two days before the biggest race of the year. It was a bitter postscript to the race, which had otherwise unfolded almost ideally from the organisers' point of view.
All fences on the National course except for the open ditches have been rebuilt with plastic cores, which are designed to be much softer and more forgiving when a horse fails to clear a fence cleanly, while the wooden centres of the ditches have also been softened.
There was a single faller at The Chair, which is jumped as the third fence in the Fox Hunters' and as the 15th, right in front of the stands, in the National. Two more fell at Becher's Brook, which is the 10th in the Fox Hunters', and the final faller came at the 14th.
Otherwise, the unseating of Stephen Magee from Harps Counsel at The Chair was the only other failure to complete apart from the five horses that were pulled up by their riders.
Horses are pulled up all the time in National Hunt racing. When their chance has gone – perhaps because of a mistake, but often simply because they are getting tired – the jockey knows that pulling up is the safest and most sensible thing to do. In well over 99 per cent of cases, the horse is unharmed, returns to its stable and, in due course, continues its racing career.
Battlefront was in the other fraction of 1 per cent. After a long 40-race career that included 13 wins, 10 of which came in point-to-point events, the 41st proved to be his last.
He was born and bred to race – his sire was the top-class Flat horse Pistolet Bleu – and did so for six years, being stabled and fed all the while like the cherished and valuable animal he was.
Ted Walsh, Battlefront's trainer, pointed out afterwards that horses die of heart attacks in the same, sudden way that humans sometimes do, when going about their normal daily business. "Fellas drop dead playing football matches, and young hurlers too," Walsh said. "People drop dead, horses drop dead. It's unfortunate and we'd all have preferred him to live to a ripe old age, but he'd still have died some day."
But that fact that Battlefront died on the National course was the only issue as far as the race's critics were concerned. Andrew Tyler, whose group Animal Aid seeks to ban all horse racing, in addition to meat farming and all testing of medicines on animals, claimed that the Fox Hunters' Chase had been "stomach-wrenchingly chaotic from start to finish", and that the death of Battlefront had occurred despite "the Aintree authorities and British Horseracing Authority … claiming that major new safety measures and efficiencies would eliminate much of the risk associated with racing on the Grand National course".
As far as I know, no one involved with Aintree or the administration of racing has claimed any such thing. Instead, the standard line is that racing has risks and always will.
If racing takes the view – shared by the vast majority of the British population – that it is acceptable to use animals for entertainment, then a primary responsibility to protect the welfare of the horses comes along with that decision.
The challenge facing the horses must be a fair one – and the old Becher's Brook, for instance, with its sharp drop on the landing side and a steep-sided ditch to catch anything that failed to clear it – was not. But the Grand National course has been modified again and again in recent years and it is now as safe as it is ever likely to be.
Whether that will be safe enough to see an injury-free Grand National on Saturday remains to be seen, though the likelihood is still that it will, despite the record of the past two seasons. Even so, there could now be no better moment for Katie Walsh to win the National on her father's Seabass, and remind the sporting public that it can be a race to raise the spirits, too. Guardian Service