HORSE AND HOUND, 8th December
We were back over the Grand National fences at Aintree last Saturday which means it is time to talk about risk. Time to rejoice in the challenge and time to halt the pretence that such a thing as jumping a fence can ever be “safe.”
It’s not just the road to hell that is paved with good intentions, it’s the path to a flat and fearful world where the mere mention of the word “risk” sends people scurrying to the shelters. I exaggerate of course, but where do we go when The Becher Chase, the very first race over the big obstacles saw fallers at the exact Grand National fences (the 4th and Bechers) which had been made “safer” after an exhaustive “safety” review during the summer?
Sympathy first for the Aintree authorities who had no option but to act following the public outcry over this year’s Grand National albeit that this was actually also exacerbated by good intentions – the bypassing of fences which focussed a long lingering view of the dead horses beneath the green tarpaulins and the apparent chaotic dismounting of weary runners after the line which had in fact been planned but not communicated to the TV authorities. The resulting review was detailed, sensible and as robust as you would expect from an organization headed by the former champion amateur Lord Daresbury who even at 60 is about the least fearful man to ever swing a leg over a saddle. But despite all that, two horses and jockeys somersaulted at Bechers and the world held its breath until all four rose unharmed.
What to do now? How should Aintree react when their official statement on publishing review said “We never stand still on safety”? Should there be more reviews, more changes to the fences, more flattening of the Bechers’ landing side? Or should they heed Ruby Walsh’s lucid if left side plea on last Saturday’s Morning Line that Aintree should in fact make the fences bigger? He wasn’t kidding. His argument was that if you make the obstacles smaller you end up going faster and extra speed only adds to the danger which is anyway inherent to the game. He had a point. It had been made two days earlier at Wincanton.
A group of us had gathered to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday. It was a jolly occasion and it was a bunch of happy mildly boozed faces that looked out up the straight as the ten runners for the Novices Handicap Hurdle swung into the final straight. Most of them were watching Timmy Murphy on the favourite Water Garden not least because he was grey. A bit more concentration would have noted the old chaser Carrickmines moving powerfully up the outside with the Alan King runner Cool Steel going almost as well behind him.
At the second last Carrickmines put in a brilliant leap to take the lead in midair. So brilliant that the old fool forgot to put his undercarriage down and went cascading across the Somerset turf bringing Cool Steel crashing down on top of him. It was a sudden, ugly, very sobering reminder of how close peril always lurk. But it did not immediately get us badgering the Wincanton team to change the height and sighting of their hurdles. Horses and riders were all OK but don’t anyone ever doubt the risks they run.
This doesn’t mean that the racing authorities are anything but absolutely correct to log every faller and review any trends that develop at any course. But it is to encourage them not to suggest to the public that this is anything but a highly dangerous activity. That is why it has higher than ever standards of emergency care for horse and rider. That is why those involved bear a huge responsibility for their own and their animal’s fitness. That is the thrill and the challenge of it. But it is not, cannot, should not ever strive to think it could be classified as “safe”.
It was way back in 1931 that my grandfather Jack Seely wrote a book called “Fear and Be Slain” with the splendid opening line “Safety first is a vile motto.” We don’t have to go as far as that but two weeks after Carruthers Hennessy Gold Cup let’s hold on to the Will Ogilvie poem on jumping which John Oaksey so loved to recite. It begins “Danger beckons yet to daring.” May it ever.