National Reflections

The 2011 Grand National has engendered a vast number of column inches, many hours of air-time and numerous on-line debates.

A large amount of what has been said, on both sides, has been emotional and some of the views expressed have been extreme and ill-informed, fuelled by predjudices.

I have been involved in some very interesting debates on Twitter and people have expressed very heartfelt views, however one of the problems with Twitter is it allows only 140 characters and the “discussion” tends to concentrate on what has just been said, rather that all that has been said and this results in disagreement, even where there is not fundamental disagreement, and comments being taken out of context.

That is not a criticism as such, it is the nature of the beast and I am as guilty as anyone of picking up on single comments as opposed to the whole.

So for clarity and without being restricted to 140 characters here is my take on the last 48 hours.

First and foremost racing is a sport with inherent dangers, to both horses and riders. Let’s not forget as we debate the Grand National, young Peter Toole is lying in hospital in a critical condition following a fall in an earlier race at Aintree.

Being humans we are individuals, as such we each have a different moral compass. As followers of the sport of racing it is up us, as individuals, to decide what is acceptable in terms of risk and where the line is to be drawn.

To take the extreme cases, there are some who say one death is too much and there are others who do not care how many die. I don’t happen to agree with either of the extremes but at the same time I don’t think I have any right to say their own moral position is right or wrong.

How many deaths are acceptable?

In truth I do not know, I think the number is actually a movable feast, depending on many aspects. In truth the trigger for too many will probably be one single incident, the straw that breaks the camel’s back as it were.

What I do know is any death in racing is regrettable.

I haven’t looked at the numbers in detail but 2011 seems to have been a particularly bad year in terms of fatalities. Indeed the first fatality I saw in 2011, that of Joe Lively, was so bad it very nearly became that straw in my case.

Since then it seems hardly a Saturday went by without a high profile horse paying the ultimate price. Apart from the freak accident at Newbury, where two horses were electrocuted, none of the deaths hit the non-racing pages.

This brings us on to the Grand National, a race firmly established in the psyche of the nation.

In the context of the racing season it could be argued it is an irrelevant race, it is run over an extreme distance, over an idiosyncratic course (and isn’t it funny the other race in the nations consciousness, The Derby, is also run on an idiosyncratic racecourse) and it has a field of forty runners, making it all the more dramatic.

As a result the attrition rate in the National is higher and yes horses do unfortunately die. Perhaps over the years it is something we in the sport have come to accept . . . “shit happens”, “it’s part of the sport”, “it’s a high risk sport” etc etc. and yes, to an extent I agree.  If you support the sport you have to accept the risks.

Yesterday I covered what I thought was wrong with Saturday’s race. (click here)

I repeat what I said yesterady, there is absolutely no justification for broadcasting that overhead shot at Becher’s the second time round.

If I were being cynical I do wonder if the shot was shown to deliberately shock – did the director have an ulterior motive?

May I stress, at this point, I am not advocating sweeping the deaths under the carpet, they should be reported and addressed frankly and openly. My issue is the way the race was broadcast actually served to focus attention on the fatalities and distressed horses.

Those of us who follow the sport day in, day out, know the National is an atypical race. Those whose only “contact” with racing is the Grand National will know no different, they think all jump racing is like the National. That is why what happened on Saturday is so damaging to the sport.

It is very easy for those in racing to circle the wagons, to stand together and attempt to justify the sport.

It is not that simple. The world is not like that anymore. We live in a quick fix, media driven world, where image is everything. It may not right but that’s the reality.

Whether we like it or not (and I do not like it) the Grand National is the showcase event of the racing year in the eyes of the general public.

If what was shown on television on Saturday makes those who follow the sport, those who know the reality, question what is happening, what will it do to the general public’s perception of the sport?

Well we now know the answer to that one.

Racing cannot bury its collective heads in the sand, if there is a groundswell of public outrage against the sport, let’s not kid ourselves, it will not survive?

That can’t happen?  

Look at the hunting “debate” and subsequent legislation.

The debate following Saturday’s race is not simply about what is an acceptable attrition rate for the sport, it goes beyond that.

Saturday’s coverage, by accident or design, has opened up a Pandora’s box. The ramifications of the race could well make the Levy and funding debate pale into insignificance.

If nothing else Saturday’s race will make us debate within the sport what is acceptable, what more can be done to reduce the risk. We will never make the sport 100% safe but if anything can be done to reduce falls and fatalities then, logically, it must be looked at.

As much as the Grand National holds a place in the hearts and minds of racing, the facts speak for themselves. It does have a higher attrition rate, it does have proportionally more fallers, more deaths. If, for example, that means the safety factor being reduced then so be it.

I made a throwaway line in a Tweet, where I stated I would shed no tears if the Grand National was never run again and was immediately castigated for making it.

The Grand National is a great spectacle, I have been watching it since 1961. It is a race I generally enjoy watching.

In the context of the racing year the Grand National has not great significance, it is a one-off event. It does not’ like the Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle, define a champion. It is simply one handicap, out of many, which happens to be different.

It is also the single race which has the ability to bring the sport to its knees, it is a freak race, yet it is the race used to bring the sport to the public attention.

Put bluntly, in terms of the sport as a whole, I believe the Grand National has the potential to cause more damage to National Hunt racing than it does good.  That is the reason why I would shed no tears if it were, ultimately, to be sacrificed for the greater good of the sport.

Before anybody says this would be pandering to the extremists, it wouldn’t be. It would demonstrate a willingness and maturity within the sport to accept the realities. Life is not black and white and in all things compromise is required.   

Given the choice I would prefer to move the Cheltenham Gold Cup to a Saturday and have that as National Hunt racings shop window.

We need some bold, radical, decisions.   


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