16/04/2012 16:30 | By Jessica Dane

Make the Grand National safer but not easier

Every year 600 million people worldwide gasp, scream and cheer as the world's most famous and controversial horse race takes place at Aintree. The John Smith's Grand National captures minds and hearts and every year a staggering £300 million is wagered on this race.

Neptune Collonges's name will go down among racing's greats

Neptune Collonges can count himself among racing's greats following his win

And it's worth asking why? It appeals to the general public who might not watch another event for the rest of the year but it's also held in high esteem but trainers owners and jockeys. And the reason is that winning such a difficult race is an achievement that everyone can admire

Now the challenge of the race is not because it is dangerous. But it is hard to imagine a contest that tested rider and mount to their absolute limit without an element of risk.

However, of the 40 horses and jockeys that start the Grand National each year, usually less than half reach the finish line, and tragically this sometimes results horse fatalities. The two deaths during Saturday's race send the strongest possible message that things need to change.

Thankfully the extreme calls for some kind of ban are getting the attention they deserve. But if the toll continues, they will become louder and louder.

One way to address the issue is to continue the process of improving the course, as advocated forcefully by the RSPCA.

The group's equine consultant, David Muir, believes that a horseracing ban would be the wrong route to follow. "I don't want a knee-jerk reaction, I want common sense," he said. "I don't like the predictability of the event, but we will never take the risk element out of racing." Instead he's calling for changes to the jumps, in particular Becher's Brook, the obstacle at which the race ended for both of this year's fatalities.

Over the course of its 173 years, the Grand National has been vastly altered in the interests of welfare. Compared to the original race, which was first run in 1839 and featured a 4ft 8 stone wall, today's 30 obstacles seem almost soft. The authorities made significant changes in 2012 but unfortunately have failed to tackle the problem.

Undoubtedly there is room for further adjustments to certain fences, as the British Horseracing Authority's inquiry is likely to find. But to keep the race's integrity, there is a limit to how far they can go. The course's difficulty of jumps and exhausting distance are what have earned its international reputation and dumbing down cannot be the answer.

Instead, the answer lies in the size of the field. Forty horses are too many and fewer runners would boost safety as both horse and rider would have more space and a clearer view.

The changes will have a cost - a smaller field means more punters will pick a winner and bookies are likely to suffer. But the cost of continuing with the status quo will be measured in the deaths of horses and possibly even jockeys as well as a disengagement of the public at large. Clare Balding put the point succinctly on Twitter: "There are too many runners in the Grand National. When the fields were smaller, horses had room to land."

Alterations to the course have already made the race safer. As Paul Bittar, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, points out: "The decade since 2000 was the safest on record for the Grand National with a fatality rate of 1.5% compared to 3.3% at the start of the 1990's."

And there is an acceptable level of risk, but the weekend's events suggest we have not yet reached it. To protect animals and riders, while maintaining the prestige and excitement that makes National day special, fewer horses must run.

16/04/2012 19:50
17/04/2012 00:50
As the widest racecourse in the country, reducing the field will not appease the critics. In the most valuable FLAT races in the world, two weeks ago in Dubai (no fences to jump), three horses had to be put down after breaking their legs. In this weeks National, "According to pete" was "bought down", this happens every day in racing, but rarely results in a broken leg. Synchronised unseated A.P.McCoy, then ran on enjoying himself and jumping four more fences (not stopping as he could have done), but very sadly misjudged a fence and broke his leg. Unfortunately, horses legs can be repaired but they will not stay still for six weeks.   

Horses break legs and die in the wild, in eventing, in foxhunting, in showjumping etc. Galloping horses have falls, even out eating grass at home. Ponies get similar injuries on Exmoor and in the New Forest. The difference is there are not 600 million people watching.

@jenny williams, jockeys HAVE died after falls, and many suffer serious injury. Like all sports, accidents happen, motor racing, football, athletics etc  just to name a few. Remember, most fallen horses get up and trot off readily, severe injuries are rare compared with the many thousands of horses in thousands of races.

People who spend their lives looking after any animals always respect, love and care for them, as do everyone connected with horse racing. The RSPCA are always involved with British horse racing authorities, and with the organisers of the National, and changes are constantly being made to avoid injuries to horses and jockeys.

Finally thanks for reading this, I am not involved in horse racing but I know that recently the RSPCA wanted National fences to have exits at the side so loose horses could "retire", it was done and yet most loose horses, p r i k  their ears in excitement and carry on jumping fences. 
(sorry...i couldnt use the spelling I wanted)
16/04/2012 20:41
The thing that a lot of people are forgetting or are unaware of is that Synchronised had unshipped Tony McCoy several fences before he went down. The horse then carried on racing without his jockey. Racehorses love to race - you cannot make a horse run and jump if it doesn't want to! What happened on Saturday was dreadfully sad and I dearly wish that both of those horses were safely in their stables. Over the years there have been many changes at Aintree to attempt to ensure greater safety for the horses and yes I agree that a smaller field would probably reduce some of the risk - horses and riders would be able to see and move around any fallen jockeys with more ease. There is no easy answer however and I believe that there should not be a knee jerk reaction.
16/04/2012 20:32
footballers are dying on the pitch, will they ban football ? dont think so
16/04/2012 21:31
I was sad ive heared many comments since Saturday im a horse race fan but Bob Champion was on our local radio saying the pitfalls and tragedies are part of the life of the sport it made me feel like does that mean its part of life that is good seeing horses die/dieing!
17/04/2012 09:48
i love the grand national but i was shocked this year that syncronized was forced to run at the start of the race millions watching saw he didnt to run and jp mcmanus jonjo o neil and tony mccoy are all to blame in this pure GREED cost the horse his life and aintree for allowing it to happen there statement says the safety of the horse is a priority obviosly it wasnt on saturday or the horse wouldnt have been allowed to run . According to petes owner pete nelson was genuinley heart broken after loosing his horse but you hear nothing from the others . an no PR will make it right someone should be held accountable  
09/06/2012 15:03

Simple ,leave the horses home and just let the jockeys run round on their own,with a whip and a pair of steps for the jumps

17/04/2012 01:45
Thats all well and good Someone, but in my opinion loose horses carry on running because  A;  They are a pack animal and will follow the rest on instinct, and  B; They are so honed ,toned and full of adrenalin and probably can't stop on a whim !!
16/04/2012 23:17

Racehorses are beautiful animals and I, like so many others, love watching them race but if 'get a life' Paul Nicholls and others, who make an exalted living from racing, cannot see that there is a huge problem with the Grand National (in its present form), then it is up to 'joe public' to speak out and ignore the crocodile tears of those who are tied to the glory, the fame and the money.

Horses (and jockeys) in normal races make mistakes but they have room to try and manage the situation and have been known to fall, recover and in some cases go on to finish the race, and even win (no longer allowed).

This (even if it were allowed) could not happen in the National, where you sometimes see several horses falling at the same time.

My advice is to 'grow up', 'get a life'  and put your back into protecting those lovely animals that keep so many in such comfort.

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