GRAND NATIONAL DEBATE

THE TIMES

15th APRIL 2023

Choice is the word at the heart of this debate. Do humans have the right to choose to put animals through dangerous activities they themselves are happy to undertake? If the answer is yes, the Grand National continues. If no, it doesn’t. 

I rode in the Grand National. My wife, with considerably more courage and expertise, climbed the Matterhorn. In both cases there was widespread approval although I did detect a certain lack of confidence when the village church held prayers for my welfare. 

As it happened a crashing fall at the 19th saw my horse, Time, trot away unscathed and me in a Walton hospital bed beside the dear old Duque of Albuquerque. But, somehow and thanks to plenty of good horses, I had a good few winners ahead. If I had been an equine, it would have been lights out. 

For the unhappy fact remains that in the case of the fractures which are the inevitable consequence of violent collisions in sport, euthanasia is always the kindest, and usually the best option for the horse. It is an animal of high sensitivity but little imagination, and its structure and metabolism make it an extremely difficult patient during the immobilisation that the healing process requires. 

For humans the problems can be explained. In the cases of my shoulder and the Duque’s knee, we could understand and cooperate in the rehabilitation. If we had been horses, best to end it there and then. It would have been the same for every jockey, and certainly for the newly recuperated Grand National hero Derek Fox and for countless sportsmen and women fractured in other disciplines. 

Challenging the fact rarely has happy consequences. In the 2006 Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the American Triple Crown, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke his right hind leg so badly in the starting gate that euthanasia would normally have been immediate. Instead, with the best of intentions a major veterinary effort was implemented, endless TV updates delivered but all finally to no avail. 

Although the leg was initially stabilised complications developed after a few weeks, the horse returned to hospital from which he never returned and where after five further operations he was finally euthanised eight full months after the original accident. Best of intentions no doubt, but also an example of putting public sensitivity in front of professional good sense. 

Public sensitivity is not something to be sneered at as some in racing do. But it needs to be rational in its application to humans and animals. Riders get injured a lot more frequently than humans and not all outcomes are pleasant ones. Ace Irish pilot JT McNamara never recovered from his terrible fall at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival and there were 14 wheelchairs on our Injured Jockeys Fund Spanish holiday last year. A few more enquiries about jockey Johnny Burke en route to hospital with a broken arm would have been welcome.

Sensitivity also needs to understand its implications. What did Saturday’s protest involve beyond achieving nationwide publicity for a hitherto unknown and untested animal lobby group and massive unwanted expenditure on the Liverpool public purse? In the first place it’s highly arguable that the delay from the protest actually led to the fall that killed Hill Sixteen at the very first fence. His trainer Sandy Thomson certainly thinks so. 

As the minutes ticked by for the 39 horses in the crowded paddock the racking up of tension was as palpable as the sweat creaming on many necks and quarters. Hill Sixteen was awash with it. By the time the jockeys were circling before the start they were on a swirling clock hand of snorting dragons. Hill Sixteen had never fallen. He did now. “He was off his head,” said Thomson. 

The harshness should always shock but racing people should not feign surprise or seek appeasement by the pretence that further changes could somehow produce the oxymoron of a “safe Grand National.”

It’s worth noting that in the 1973 Grand National there there were 10 falls, twice Saturday’s number, the single fatality they had was unhappily replicated at the weekend. What’s more while not a single jockey hit the floor without his horse in 1973, no less than 11 were fired over the side at the weekend. Adding to the argument that the riders are initially more in more danger than the animals beneath them. 

But’s that’s their choice and it’s now necessary to confront both the popular protest that racehorses do not have a choice and the racing myth that all horses love to race, when trainers and jockeys are there to make their pupils to fulfil the planned purpose of their existence. 

Of course animals don’t have a choice. We can’t have some sort of “Animal Farm” election and our towns are crowded enough without cows strolling up the High Street India style. 

If the choice is that we should not put animals at risk in sport or, in logic, in the rather more finite lifespans involved in farming, then we have to accept it. I have put these animals as well as myself at risk. I have had several horses killed under me. One moment you are the top half of a leaping centaur, the next you are pulling the saddle of a soaking slab of meat. It’s traumatic but it makes you admire and care for them more, not give up altogether. 

“Animal Loving” is the sweetest of slogans but it rings hollow if it leads to the collapse of the meat industry and in racing’s case to the extinction of the thoroughbred racehorse, Britain’s greatest gift to the animal kingdom and the fastest weight carrying creature the world has ever seen. 

These horses do not, did not, arrive here by stork. 300 years of selective breeding have developed an athlete whose mind and body are uniquely equipped for racing. They are the sports cars of the equine fleet. Without the examination of the racecourse, the demand for the product would cease, breeding would aim more for reliability than speed, and a whole industry as well as thousands of thoroughbreds would be no more. 

Do we want to lose the things and the animals we say we love? In the end the decision belongs to the society around us. But never think that we can duck what would follow. 

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