If Horrible Histories, that wonderful history comedy sketch show, ostensibly for children, but adored by young ones and their parents alike, is around in 100 years, I think their long running skit about ridiculous and “Stupid Deaths” will show the pointless death of racehorses for sport to a disbelieving audience.
I have loved the Grand National ever since I was a child. It was an annual event, pick out the horse using the analysis of the amateur. Superstitions, lucky numbers, favourite colours and names that appealed. Over the years I had some successes. Like everyone else there were wins with the famous sheep-skinned noseband of Red Rum. A schoolgirl crush on Champion Jockey Jonny Francome, whose placings on Rough and Tumble earned me at least my stake back and a bit more. But there were many more losses. But I didn’t mind, it was all part of the fun and festival of the day.
Over the years I have taken many of my friends for their first trip to the bookies on National Day. In recent years they have become much inviting places. When they were smoke-filled windowless rooms, their walls covered head to foot with screens and race details and men, always only men standing watching the numbers, trying to beat the odds, I found them very intimidating places indeed. I fully understood I was visiting a secret world, I had been granted access on this one day, and this National day only.
I knew the race was dangerous. In 1980 only 4 horses finished the race. I listened to the people who ran the sport, that the size of the field and the size and difficulty of the iconic fences of Beechers, Canal Turn and The Chair made it what it was, they made it unique and that led to the romance and mystique of the Race. Take them away and you made the Grand National ordinary. They said the National got in your blood, it was the ultimate prize in the steeplechase year and the traditions should remain.
And didn’t the Grand National always give a chance to the outsider, the long shot. The winner always had story straight from a fairytale. Even Hollywood had been seduced by the epic tales with the adaption of Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet starring a young Elizabeth Taylor as the eponymous Velvet.
This alone should secure the race its place untouched in the sporting calendar. You never hear of betting syndicates trying to influence the outcome of the National, unlike in every other fixture these days from flat racing, to football and boxing and even recently to cricket, the game to me was the ultimate metaphor of fair play and decency. But sadly even it has been tainted.
But something much much worse than all of that happens at the Aintree on National day. Every year beautiful intelligent horses die in horrific circumstances. I knew this before yesterday but for all the reasons listed above I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind. But yesterday I could no longer allow myself the luxury of denial.
I was meeting old friends in a bar in Harrogate. We were having a wonderful, long chatty catch up lunch. We hadn’t seen each other for some time and all of us had news to share and celebrate. I was in the company of my two oldest and very dear friends. My bets were already chosen at home but we were going to watch the race because one friend lived in same village as According to Pete. She knew the owner too. He was a lovely man she said. We skipped off to the bookies to join the long queue to get our bet on. This could pay for lunch my friend said.
So our hopes were high, it was amazing to have a personal connection to the race. The bar was filling up, the excitement was rising, we had had a lovely lunch, I could not have been more contented.
Everyone knows the outcome of the race, the closest photo-finish ever, the first grey horse to win since 1961 and they won by a nudge of a nostril. But sadly this year there is no story except two horses had to be put down after breaking their legs. According to Pete was brought down by another fallen horse. In short he had nowhere he could land because there were too many other runners and riders fighting for the same spot to come down safely and continue the race.
My friend had said that the owner told them that he didn’t care where Pete came in the race as long as he got round safely. She said the owner will be distraught. In that bar all those wonderful, contented feelings vanished instantly. A bucket of cold water full in the face couldn’t have done it any quicker. The betting slip was still on the table. It felt like an insult, an affront. Utterly offensive to be betting on a horse that raced and lost its life almost in front of our eyes. That was my lightbulb moment. I could no long sanction and legitimise this barbaric sport.
The other horse that died yesterday was Synchronized. A Gold Cup winner ridden by Champion Jockey A P McCoy. Synchronized had already thrown his rider before the race and there were reports that Tony McCoy had hurt his arm. I thought about the incredible film about the racing driver Ayrton Senna. Many changes had been made to the F1 cars the season he died to make the racing more exciting. Since Senna’s untimely death and the loss of one of the most charismatic and exciting drivers there has ever been, safety changes have been to the sport and thankfully no driver since has lost his life. Is that what it is going to take at the National too, nothing will change until a jockey dies? Racing’s equivalent to Ayrton Senna? I really hope the British Horseracing Authority acts before there is any more loss of life, equine or human.