Racing Post 16.10.2023

Hands up for starters. I am aware that anything written by someone who rode in the Grand National before most who read this were born and who has reported on it for over 50 years can be suspected of wishing back to “good old days” when men were men, fences were fences, brandy bottles were under the benches, falls were vertical, and quite a few of us headed off to hospital with the Duque of Albuquerque. I did that last one actually.

But with respect for different times and admiration for the work of all parties in the latest changes, I believe there is a multi-syllable but crucial word that needs discussing in this debate. It is anthropomorphism – treating animals as if they were humans. As broadcasters and journalists we often stray into that area – attributing all sorts of human characteristics and some of their faults to the horses we fancy.

It’s all done with the best of intentions but it can lead to dishonest expectations, in this case that most perfect of oxymorons: “a safe Grand National.”

We have to be realistic about what is involved. Half a ton of horse and 10 stone of jockey hurling themselves over five foot of fence at 30 miles an hour is an awesome sight. 30 of them thundering over together evokes huge excitement and, yes, a bit of terror too. This is the test we have chosen and which, in the case of the Grand National, has enthralled more people than any other annual event with animals on the planet.

It is a race whose glory has been earned in the strain and danger that has to be overcome. Yes, the danger. Why is it we are so frightened of that word? Challenge is good, but danger is bad. Once you stress danger in front of challenge then you are battling against that most overbearing, not to mention most litigious word in modern life – the safety risk.

We can’t turn the clock back and we must accept that in a democracy we can only operate with public support. But the attraction of the Grand National is that it has been the highest mountain that racing’s participants set out to climb. If we do any more to ease the route, the uniqueness of the challenge and of the attraction will be lost.

There are two species in this activity. The humans have training in expertise and fitness as never before. The horses have quite a bit else. They are not pets, or pleasure ponies or ordinary livestock. They are hardened, purpose bred athletes whose whole lives have led to this. The Grand National is equine fulfilment not animal abuse.

But both species are liable to injury, falls are inevitable, and the central but unavoidable truth is that in severe case humans almost always at least partly recover, horses rarely do.

Four horses fell in this year’s Grand National but 11 other riders got unseated and bit the turf. One jockey, Johnny Burke, went to hospital and recovered. One horse, Hill Sixteen, didn’t.

So everything in this issue ultimately comes down to choice. Do we, as humans, have the right to put animals to the sporting risk we ourselves are prepared to take?

If we have that right, we must then do everything to ready our four-legged partners for the risks ahead and to care for them in the case of injury. But they are horses and need to be treated with the respect and also the reality that their species demands.

We cannot please everybody but should stand firm and friendly to the belief that the Grand National is a glory of which our nation of animal lovers should be proud. It is a challenge that should be met.

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