There’s only one certainty about today’s Grand National meeting: horses will be killed. Yes, we know the event is iconic in this city, as well as across the world, but it also harms horses with alarming regularity and this year’s meet is already responsible for three deaths. That’s a cold hard fact – and you can bet that the smart money is on there being more to follow this afternoon.
From an early age, the words ‘Grand National’ have filled me with dread. As friends and family huddled around the telly to watch the annual carnage, I would disappear upstairs, or into another room, until it was all over… cringing with every ‘oooh’ of those watching, as yet another poor beast came to grief. All I could think of, as the runners proceeded to the next fence, was the fate of the horse that was still on the ground at the previous fence, fully aware of what would be happening, without having to see those dreaded green screens with my own eyes.
Then I would be mocked and ridiculed, of course, by all those who just couldn’t wait to ‘put me right’ on a few things about the nation’s favourite steeplechase. I can still hear them: “The horses love jumping, they wouldn’t do it otherwise… ” Or, a personal favourite: “They don’t die, really… ” Three decades on and the event still fills me with the same horror. Wherever I am come 5:15pm today, I will make sure I am as far away from a TV or radio as is possible… until the whole, horrid spectacle is over.
If, like me, you find yourself having to defend your position as a caring and humane individual each April, here are some answers to the common myths that will no doubt be thrown at you this weekend. After all, facts are the only dead certs you should rely on…
The Grand National is safer than it ever has been
Compared to the days when horses would be forced to jump solid brick walls disguised by branches, yes, possibly. But, the harsh truth is that horses will be killed and injured once again (two died on Thursday, one on Friday). Each year, organisers claim to have made the race safer – but, since 2000, 24 horses have died on the Grand National course and, over the three-day meetings, 42 horses have been killed in that same period. Safe, it seems, is a relative term when it comes to horses.
Jockeys love horses like pets
Please. This is often trotted out to appease anyone who dares to question the annual bloodbath at Aintree. The fact of the matter is, that it’s just not true. When asked about the sad death of his mount, Our Conor, at Cheltenham a couple of years back, jockey Ruby Walsh made his feelings pretty clear… after viewers watched in horror as the horse crashed to the floor, Walsh had this to say: “It’s sad – but horses are animals, outside your back door. Humans are humans, inside your back door. You can replace a horse – you can’t replace a human being.”
Horses enjoy jumping
Really? Has anyone ever asked one? Let me ask you a question: have you ever seen a horse jump a series of obstacles, or execute a perfect 20 meter circle spontaneously, with no human prompting? A horse may have qualities that make it more suitable for this so-called sport of kings (and think about that for moment or two), but that doesn’t mean it likes it more. Horses probably enjoy – I say probably, as I’ve never asked one – eating grass and grazing in a field without the prospect of breaking their neck or drowning in a water jump. Wouldn’t you?
Horses are bred to race
Some might be, tragically, but many horses finding themselves at Aintree today will have started out in blood sports – namely the barbaric, cruel and illegal pastime of fox hunting. And, if they’re lucky and make it round the four miles plus of the course, littered with obstacles placed strategically to bring them crashing to the ground, they will once again find themselves chasing defenceless creatures across the English countryside before they are ripped apart by hounds. Well bred, hey…
It’s not, you know. Put that betting slip down and think about it with us. Horses have very frail forelegs and limbs that just aren’t sturdy enough for the huge fences at Aintree (‘Becher’s Brook’ is the Grand National’s most notorious fence and responsible for the deaths of ten horses over the years). Every time a horse jumps over an obstacle, especially with an added human load, it puts tremendous pressure on its two front legs as it lands. Ask the experts… Emma Milne, from Vets in Practice, told our friends at sevenstreets.com this, back in 2013: “The bitter paradox of racing is that the breeding of horses for speed directly undermines their ability to cope with jumps. What a racehorse owner wants is a thin, light creature which can move as fast as possible – exactly the type of horse most likely to be vulnerable when forced over jumps of more than five feet high.”
Call us killjoys, if you like, but know this: we don’t think it’s right for an animal to die for our sport. Do you?
Pic courtesy of FAACE