Glory beckons but danger strikes, that dream and nightmare Aintree mix wrenched at the heart more than ever yesterday. One moment the spirits soared at the closest Grand National finish in history, the next they plummeted to racing’s darkest pit as news came through that both Synchronized and According To Pete were dead.
Of all the horses, don’t make it them. According To Pete was bred and raised in the one acre paddock behind Peter Nelson’s family garage business in the North Yorkshire village of Helperby. He had won 11 of his 49 races since he first ran at Bangor on Dee seven years AGO, he was the best horse Peter will ever, ever have, “Apple of his eye” wouldn’t begin to tell the half of it. And then Synchronized, he wasn’t just part of the JP McManus, Jonjo O’Neill and AP McCoy empire – he seemed to belong to all of us.
Most especially yesterday when he put in a pre-race comic turn by dumping McCoy and cantering gaily off into the distance to be eventually caught by the legendary white whiskered photographer Ed Byrne. It seemed a chuckling way of remembering his remarkable climb up the rankings in his 19 race career which had culminated in the crowning triumph of the Gold Cup at Cheltenham only a month ago. For those few minutes it put away the nightmare scenario that haunted Jonjo O’Neill, that Synchronized might suffer the same fate as Alverton the horse on whom he had ridden to win the 1979 Gold Cup only to be killed in that year’s Grand National. But now the nightmare screamed in all its ghastliness.
For it was at the famous Becher’s Brook that Alverton had met his end and it was that self-same obstacle that claimed both Synchronized and According To Pete yesterday. No matter that According To Pete was brought down by another horse or that Synchronized arose apparently uninjured from his fall only to hurt himself fatally when jumping loose four fences later. Two more deaths are added to the slate and those of us who still love the race and in my case have ridden in it, have TO once again look harshly in the mirror.
Can the search for glory ever be worth the price? Can we really square a love of horses whilst so evidently putting their necks at risk? Can the Grand National hold its head high as the ultimate challenge for horse and rider if some of those horses end it under a green tarpaulin? They are hard questions to answer still hurting with the sadness. But as we examine them, no one should doubt that the sadness is felt worst by those closest to the ANIMALS. One moment you are on a galloping, jumping symbol of vitality. Within seconds it is just a piece of meat. It happens. If horses gallop and jump it will always happen. Forty years ago it happened several times to me.
Recognition of that fact only increases the responsibility for us who support the race and at this time we have to accept that the wider world may be slight on sympathy. But don’t ever nowadays cast officialdom as uncaring. As Neptune Collonges was led into the cheering winners enclosure, racecourse chairman Peter Daresbury was a shattered not an ebullient figure. “What do we do,” he said disconsolately, “we have tried so hard and yet these things happen.”
Half an hour later Professor Tim Morriss, the rather grandly titled “Director of Equine Science and Welfare” for the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) put out a measured statement about Synchronized and According To Pete : “In both cases the horse incurred a fracture to the leg and the humane option was to put the injured horse down. The Grand National undoubtedly represents a challenge to both horse and rider. It has inherent risks, but working closely with Aintree and other stakeholders, we do all we can to minimize these risks while maintaining the unique character of the race. We will examine closely the circumstances which led to both incidents.”
He went on to stress how they will collate all the key data and closed by pledging “The BHA takes its responsibility of looking after the welfare of horse and rider very seriously. We consult and work with recognized welfare organizations such as the RSPCA, SSPCA and World Horse Welfare. It is our stated objective to continue to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities which occur in racing.”
Morris and Daresbury are fine and fair men trying hard to avoid looking as if they are defending the indefensible. Maybe they and the rest of us are trying too hard. For they might have added that jockey Noel Fehily also broke a leg. If he had been a horse, a creature that can feel pain but has no imagination or understanding or often the physical capacity to get through it, he too would have had euthanasia as the best option. The Grand National is a celebration of life just because it is facing risks that might even end it. Should we be afraid of that? Should we never try and climb to the mountains peak for fear of a rope that broke?
Not all yesterday’s memories were dark ones. Only a soul of stone would not be lightened by the sight of Katie Walsh as she gasped out how thrilling a ride she had shared with Sea Bass beneath her. It was two hundred years ago that William Blake wrote the immortal line : “great things are done when men and mountains meet.” What Katie Walsh did in the 2012 Grand National was a reminder that they can also happen when women as well as men take up the challenge with their horses at Aintree. But don’t anyone ever pretend that it will be free of risk.