The romance of National Velvet, silks flying in the wind and thundering hooves pounding the final furlong are all part and parcel of the annual British love-in with the Grand National. Whether your money’s on a cautious each-way-er, a boom or bust to-winner, or a kamikaze accumulator, even the novice gambler comes out to play one Saturday in April.There’s lots to love – not least choosing the thoroughbred that will bring your investment home safely. Some people randomly harpoon the paper hoping fate will deliver the perfect pony, others trawl the vaguely Carry On names like Gullible Gordon or Major Malarkey for the one that has so much relevance they simply couldn’t be wrong and there are those who favour the grey because they know nothing about racing but wasn’t it a grey that won last year? Then you reach for teenie-tiny bookies’ pencil and make your mark. Oh, and there’s the anxiety of the starting line, the breathless panting of the unfathomable commentators that makes your heart beat that little bit more…the family sitting wide-eyed around the box for this one event of the year – all roaring their thoroughbread over Becher’s Brook.
Protestors will tell me that’s the naive defence; the defence that comes from the nostalgia of the fireplace where I sat with my family every year desperately trying to choose the winner. What about the dark face of the Grand National, they’ll ask? How do you justify that? The tragic deaths of Synchronised and According to Pete in the 2012 race are hard to argue with. Nobody wants to see a horse suffer, and it can’t possibly be justified. The point of the National is that the whole country is willing each and every horse on to glory, amazed by their stamina and in awe of their leap as they meet each fence. It can be made safe; there may never be a guarantee that no other horse will die but what guarantees are there in any sport? There are those who think the annual 30 jump steeple chase should be banned. I’m not one of them.
This year’s prize fund stands at £975,000, and the first prize haul is set to be £547,267. Protestors could probably be forgiven for painting them as greedy owners in tweed dress coats, hulking over piles of cash whilst welfare remains a dirty word. It sounds like a lot when you say it quickly but does it compare to the mammoth costs of buying and caring for a top-flight thoroughbred in the first place? Almost definitely not. The truth is that horse welfare is the top of everyone’s priorities in racing, and the country’s most eminent horse charities support the Grand National – as well as the continuing improvement of safety on the course.
According the British Horse Society, “Racing provides around 20,000 direct full-time jobs and 70,000 indirect full-time jobs.” That’s some defence, surely, unless of course you think the welfare of 70,000 British workers is unimportant. Admittedly, that’s a low blow at the protestors; it’s not as simple as that, is it? Jobs don’t detract from the animal cruelty argument but it doesn’t have to be a case of ‘us’ or ‘them’ when it comes to the National. Cruelty doesn’t come into it either. Horses that compete in the National are protected by stringent entry guidelines. At the moment, a horse has to be at least 7 years old, have positioned at least fourth in a chase of 3 miles or more and pass a pre-vet inspection in order qualify to run in the race. Even then, they can still be refused at the starting line if there are concerns. Jockeys too are subject to guidelines and must have ridden at least 15 winners in chases or hurdles.
Even the ‘greedy owners’ have the welfare of their often beloved animals at heart. Last year’s winning owner, John Hales, retired Neptune Collange to a less demanding sport straight after his win: “Neptune Collange is doing dressage at the moment and he was first of 18 in his competition so I am really pleased and proud of him.” Despite Neptune Collange’s success, Hales was true to his word that the 2012 National would be the horse’s last race. It’s a far cry from the image of owners flogging their horses to the last sinew for every penny they can reap.
That isn’t enough defence? The British Horse Society are keen to stress how much better race horses have it than many domestically owned horses: “Sadly, many non-racehorses do not receive the same level of care and attention and live lives blighted by suffering and neglect; our 200 welfare officers see such cases every day…They may not make the headlines but their rights and needs are no less important.” At least Grand National horses don’t end up as horse meat. Or glue. Or starving and neglected.
The deaths of two horses in one race is disastrous. No equine lover would defend the loss of a horse for sport – but they were at least put down humanely and had led privileged lives under the care of responsible owners. If the race can be made safer, does it have to be banned? Jessica Stark, from World Horse Welfare, told me about the charity’s view of the race. They worked alongside Grand National organisers in a bid to improve welfare standards and they applaud the efforts that have been made so far. She said: “Aintree have invested a lot to try to make this race safer, and we welcome all that they have done.” Yet the battle to make the Grand National safe is far from over. “The race has our qualified support – we would like to see sensible improvements to safety while maintaining the character of the race.” Whilst they’d like to see the field size reduced from 40 to 30, they are not opposed to the traditional race continuing.
So I’m ditching my bookies’ pencil this year but not because I’m out of the runnning. I’ll be placing my bet online. But I will be placing my bet…and I will be clutching my sofa in the hope that every horse makes it home.
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John Smith’s Grand National 2013 Media Guide
The British Horse Society Press Centre
Jessica Stark: World Horse Welfare