16 April 2012
As soon as people begin to complain about horses dying during the Grand National, racing enthusiasts jump on them about being "anti-racing". Well, I'm not. It's not something I profess to enjoy or be expert on, but I see its attraction and know the traditions that come with it.
And when fit horses misjudged a fence and suffered a fatal injury, I felt sad but accepted it was par for the (race)course. There's been a fair bit of publicity for this over the last couple of years - Twitter is largely responsible, to be honest; until it came along people aired their anger with the person sitting next to them but had got over it before they'd considered typing a stern letter to the Guardian - but there was always a danger to horses (and riders) on the most stringent tracks as you roll back the years.
So the horse from near Harrogate that died, According To Pete, did so in tragic circumstances but its owners and trainers knew the risk. It's very sad, but it's racing. And it's the Grand National, especially.
There is no such excuse, it seems, for the death of Synchronised, the handsome horse in the photo, and this did make me angry. And it made me change my view.
Synchronised won the Cheltenham Gold Cup earlier this year and was a strong favourite for the National. Ridden by Tony McCoy, the most revered jockey of the current age, there seemed to be a perfect combination of in-form geegee and decorated rider for the spectators and sportswriters, right there.
But a horse is still an animal, still devoid of choice and still unable to express its emotions properly. And yet, when Synchronised unseated McCoy as they wandered towards the starting rope and vanished in the opposite direction, surely that was enough of an indication that something was up and the horse wasn't ready to race?
They caught up with the horse, brought it back and McCoy leapt on. Six fences later the horse unseated McCoy again, continued to run and then shortly afterwards collapsed again, its leg fractured. And, as we know, a broken leg is enough for the dreaded black tent to be erected around the horse immediately.
This horse had made it as plain as it could that it didn't want to run that day. But it was a joint favourite and it had the main man on its back. At this point, consideration for the animal ended and consideration for the spectators and bookmakers dominated. Had a well-backed horse been declared a non-runner, an awful lot of people would want their stake money back and an awful lot of bookmakers would be greatly inconvenienced. This is not to mention the sense of disappointment at not seeing take part in the race a champion horse apparently physically able and a jockey of great distinction.
So it became about people, and especially about money, and ceased to be about the horse. As a consequence, however directly you to choose to see it, the horse is now dead. This specific death during the Grand National should be the one that finally makes the racing authorities get their fingers out and make the course not just "safer" but "safe". They need to reduce the number of horses taking part and have adequate numbers of independent animal welfare people on hand to assess the horses right up to the moment the tape goes up. Even without the fatalities, the very fact that only 15 of 40 horses got to the end unscathed should say plenty. The view that I had that accepting deaths as part of the sport should no longer be tolerated.