A Seaside Walk

So what will you be doing 16:15 this Saturday afternoon?

SeasideIf the weather is fine I’ll be taking in the sea air along the seafront at Southsea, what I won’t be doing is watching the Grand National.

I strongly suspect there will be a great deal fewer people watching the race this year, not necessarily due to any moral concerns about the race but due to the terrestrial coverage moving from mainstream BBC 1 to the backwater that is Channel Four.

My prediction is around 2-3 million, at most, will watch the race at its new home. I’m pretty certain very few viewers will have been attracted by the ridiculous and wholly inappropriate trailer for the event being broadcast on Channel Four.

I didn’t watch the National live last year either. On that occasion I was at Chepstow and, as happens across the board, there was a huge gap in their race program to accommodate the showing of the Grand National. So last year I took advantage of the hour and five minute break to leave the course roll into Chepstow town for a walk.

In a way it’s surprising I no longer want to watch the race. The National is my earliest racing memory, 1961 and Nicolaus Silver was the winner.

AintreeI hardly missed a year thereafter. I had every race since 1990 on video tape or DVD but in the past few years I have begun to fall out of love with the race.

Perhaps as I get older my sensibilities have changed. Perhaps it’s because I go racing far more regularly than I used to and I am exposed to the darker side more frequently?

I fully accept there is an inherent risk in horse racing both to horses and riders. The thorny question is at what level does the risk become unacceptable?

I, like 99% of those who follow the sport, hate it when a horse is hurt or pays the ultimate price.

There are, sadly, those morons who still cheer when a horse falls and if I had my may I would have them ejected from the course and banned for life.

Everything in life carries a risk but it’s a very personal matter as to where the line id drawn.

For better or worse, and I believe it is for the worse, the Grand National is the “shop window” of racing in the eyes of the wider public. It is the biggest race of the year in terms of betting turnover and that makes many more protective of the race – after all who wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg?

But what if that goose has the potential to cause more harm than good in the longer term? What if the race has the potential to damage the wider sport?

By it nature the race will carry a higher risk, but has that risk become unacceptable?

Over the years the authorities have tinkered with the race but have these changes worked in the interests of the race?

Bechers BrookThe fences have become easier. Bechers Brook is all but a shadow of its former self. The drop fences have all but gone but has the “softening” of the fences actually created more issues?

Now the fences are less challenging are they being treated with less respect?

The greatest damage to the reputation of the race came two years ago when the BBC coverage featured some appalling camera angles showing stricken horses in the worse possible way.

I would like to think it was simply an inept editorial decision but I am not 100% convinced on that front.

Aintree FenceThis year has seen some further tinkering to the race. The most significant being changes to the structure of the fences and the second being the distance of the race.

The changes to the fences are, on the face of it, no brainers. The removal of solid wooden stakes from the core of the fences makes sense.

I have a concern though, will the removal of the wooden cores again reinforce the attitude in the jockeys minds, even subconsciously, that the fences can be approached more aggressively.

I have a greater concern about shortening the distance to the first fence. The previous long approach allowed the field to spread out in terms of width and from first to last, allowing most of the runners to get a good sight of the fence.

With the shorter approach there will be less time to get that important space.

I know some will argue other races have a shorter approach to the first. Yes they do but other races don’t have 40 runners.

The number of casualties at the first has been relatively low in recent years, usually one or two.

I hope I’m wrong but my fear is there will be more runners falling or bought down at the first.

The last two years have been bad for the National with two runners paying the ultimate price in each renewal. Defenders of the race will offer explanations in “defence” of the fatalities, for example Synchronised fell when running free and not in the race.

Those explanations are irrelevant – what is relevant is the number of injuries or fatalities not how they happened. In the eyes of the wider public two horses died in each of the last two runnings.

Consider this, if 20% of runners in all races were killed there would quite rightly be a public outcry to ban the sport and there would be no sane defence of the sport.

Yet when people point out a 20% fatality rate in the last two Grand Nationals they are dismissed by moat of the racing fraternity as tree huggers and activists.

That is condescending and patronising. I love the sport of racing and I am not alone within those who follow the sport closely in having concerns about the race.

I’ve seen comments in the past few days, from journalists who should know better, exhorting the racing media to rally round and support the race and not criticise the race.

Does that mean they are now panicking, forming the wagons in a circle, and coming to the realisation they are beginning to defend the indefensible.

I sincerely hope every horse and rider comes back in one piece on Saturday and I hope my worries and concerns are wholly unfounded.

I’ve also just noticed it has been confirmed Imperial Commander is an intended runner in this year’s renewal, I hope he isn’t 2013’s Synchronised.

I’m personally at a stage where I’m indifferent towards the Grand National. I hope this year’s renewal isn’t the final straw that has me actively calling for its abolition – time will tell.           

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