As a vet, I say: Ban this cruel spectacle – Grand National

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Sprawled on the ground, limbs tangled, necks wrenched at agonising angles, the photographs of the fallen horses at Saturday’s Grand National were painful even to look at. Yet millions take pleasure in this cruel spectacle.

On Saturday the country gathered around its TV sets, anxiously clutching betting slips and sweepstakes pull-outs.

But I’m afraid I wasn’t among them. I cannot bear to watch a single moment of the race. To me, the Saturday of the Grand National is one of the most depressing days of the year.

I say this not because I am some kind of puritan killjoy but because, as a vet and animal rights specialist, I am appalled at the amount of suffering the horses have to endure.

Neptune Collonges runs clears as According to Pete and jockey Henry Haynes and On His Own and Paul Townshend fall at Bechers

Each year I dread the news of another horse having to be put down – ‘destroyed’ as some commentators thoughtlessly put it – after a gut-wrenching fall which leaves horse and rider stricken on the turf.

This weekend’s race was a particularly distressing spectacle with two horses dying after terrible falls. Nine-year-old gelding Synchronised, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup earlier this season, broke a leg and was put down.

According to Pete was also put down after falling on the second attempt at Becher’s. Two other runners, Killyglen and Weird Al, sustained injuries during the race.

As the owners of the winning horse Neptune Collonges opened bottles of celebratory champagne in the enclosure, tarpaulin fences were being hastily erected to shield the bodies of the two fallen horses.

 The Grand National might be a spectacle that captivates the British public, but for me it simply serves as a reminder of the absolute disregard for animals and their welfare which some humans seem to have.

For too long, the cruelty of the race has been blithely ignored by the horse-racing authorities and the race-going public.

It shouldn’t be like this. Sport, after all, is meant to be an uplifting activity, reflecting the quest for excellence and heroism in competition. But there is nothing remotely inspirational or heroic about forcing horses to gallop round a dangerous course at high speed and risk sustaining painful, even fatal falls.

In the Grand National alone, ten horses have been killed since 2000. And last month, the Cheltenham race meeting was overshadowed by the death of five horses.

We would not tolerate this callous approach towards human competitors.

If, in the Olympic Games, several athletes broke bones during, for example, the 3,000 metres steeplechase the event would either be dropped or the course drastically altered.

 Formula 1 motor racing, radical new standards of safety were introduced following a spate of deaths in the 1970s. These included improvements to cars and better layout of  tracks, measures which helped to achieve a dramatic fall in fatalities.

There is nothing like the same concern for horses’ welfare shown in the National. The deaths and injuries to the animals seem to be regarded as, at best, nothing more than inconvenient consequences of the race and at worst ‘just one of those things’.

The brutality of last year’s competition in particular – where only 19 horses finished out of a field of 40 – was compounded by the sickening sight of the exhausted horse, Ballabriggs, being whipped to the finishing line to win the race.

The central failing of the Grand National, as with all steeplechase racing, is that the horses are not physically designed by nature to leap over high fences. Their bodies are not strong enough, nor are their legs sturdy enough. Every time a horse jumps over an obstacle, especially with an added human load, it puts tremendous pressure on its two front legs as it lands.

Mankind has, of course, bred horses for specific tasks, such as mighty dray horses, with their tree trunk legs for pulling carts. But the bitter paradox of racing is that the breeding of horses for speed directly undermines their ability to cope with jumps. For what a racehorse owner wants is a thin, light creature which can move as fast as possible – exactly the type of horse most likely to be vulnerable when forced over jumps of more than five feet high.

 This is slightly mitigated by the fact that the truest thoroughbreds are generally kept for the flat races, with the sturdier animals competing over the jumps.

But even so, this does not alter the fact that these National Hunt horses are still bred for speed, and therefore they are required to operate far beyond the capacity of their bodies’ skeletal strength.

The problem is compounded by the uniquely arduous nature of the Aintree course, which is four-and-a-half miles long, having been extended by half-a-mile in 1975. The horses have to jump over 30 fences, which themselves are larger than those on any other course in Britain.

In truth, the Aintree course is so demanding that, over the last decade, only 36 per cent of horses have actually been able to finish the race.

The Grand National’s defenders claim that the horses actually enjoy the races, otherwise why would they carry on racing, sometimes even when their jockey falls off?

But horses are herd animals. Out of instinct, they will try to follow the leader of the pack or continue running because that is what they have evolved and indeed been trained to do. But there is no evidence they really enjoy jumping.

The tragedy of the National is that, if people were honest enough to admit it, the greatest attraction of the race is in the element of danger and the thrill of watching the horses tackle this highly risky challenge.

How can horses be so ruthlessly exploited to feed this national habit when we claim to be proud to be more compassionate than most other countries to our animals?

Having banned fox-hunting, bear-baiting and cock-fighting, we like to think ourselves morally superior to our crueller ancestors who used to revel in these practices. But the Grand National is little different to such barbarities.

In response to animal welfare campaigners, the British Horseracing Authority introduced a few cosmetic changes to this year’s National, such as imposing a higher age limit of seven years on all horses to ensure they are fully developed and have sufficient experience, and reducing the drop on the landing side of Becher’s by a few inches. But these steps did little to protect Synchronised and According to Pete.

There is only one way to stop the suffering of the horses and that is to ban the Grand National. If racing enthusiasts truly respected these noble, majestic creatures, they would be unable to tolerate any longer such needless cruelty  masquerading as sport.


“Well, if you read my post yesterday, it seems I am not the only who thought Synchronised shouldn’t have raced etc. etc….I rest my case”

Terrified Grand National horse who died at Aintree should NEVER have even started, say the racing experts

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  • Nine-year-old Grand National favourite fell twice during race and had to be put down
  • Pundits had raised concerns over horse’s well-being after it threw jockey Tony McCoy minutes before start
  • Synchronised fell at notorious Becher’s Brook, before second fall five fences later where it broke a hind leg
  • RSPCA demand changes to race after describing Grand National as ‘clearly not safe enough’

A champion horse killed after falling at the Grand National should never have been allowed to race after it became spooked before the start, experts said yesterday.

Millions saw Gold Cup winner Synchronised throw its rider before poignantly galloping alone in front of the grandstand ahead of the race on Saturday.

It was eventually retrieved by officials and reunited with its jockey Tony McCoy at the start. However, it was to die in the race a few minutes later after it fell twice

Tragic: Synchronised (circled in red) starts to fall after jumping the notoriously difficult Becher's Brook during Saturday's Grand National

Racing pundit John McCririck was among those who said the horse, one of the favourites, should not have started the race when there were doubts over its physical and mental well-being.

And before the race began BBC presenter Clare Balding commented that Synchronised ‘did not look up for it’ as the horse appeared jittery when McCoy ‘showed it’ the first fence before racing.

Synchronised won the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month ago but lasted just six of the 30 fences before falling at notorious Becher’s Brook.

 The nine-year-old carried on racing ‘riderless’ for a further five fences before falling again and breaking a hind leg. The agonising decision was then made to put the horse down by lethal injection beside the track where it fell.However, the trainer of another horse which met the same grim fate, According to Pete, has spoken in defence of the race, saying his death was ‘just a freak accident’.According to Pete fell when jumping Becher’s Brook for the second time and colliding with another horse. It was put down after breaking its shoulder.

But Malcom Jefferson said it was time to stop tinkering with the conditions of the race and said he would have no qualms about entering another horse next year.

He said: ‘He (According to Pete) was one of my favourites so it’s hit me very hard. As a trainer, and it’s the same for anyone in racing, you don’t go to the races expecting to lose your horse.

‘You can’t do anything about it, it’s just a freak accident that could have happened anywhere, but because it was the National everyone saw it.’

The two deaths have led to to angry calls for the Aintree event – first run in 1839 – to be made safer.

But Mr Jefferson said: ‘They can’t carry on making changes. In my eyes, the fences should be bigger to slow them down. If they were a foot higher Pete would still have jumped them.

‘People say make the field smaller, but what if next year another two die? Then they`ll want 20 runners. If I have a suitable horse next year I’ll enter him.’

The RSPCA called for an ‘urgent examination’ and said it had serious concerns about the high number of horses included in the race, as well as the difficulty of some jumps.

The race was delayed when McCoy fell from Synchronised before the start.

The horse ran some distance down the course on its own before it was caught and a vet was then seen checking the animal’s heartbeat before it was ridden back to the start.

According to some experts, the gelding may not have been in the right condition to run the gruelling race.

As the horse and rider were filmed facing the first fence, Miss Balding commented on air: ‘I don’t think he fancies it much, you know.’ She added afterwards: ‘I know that’s a silly thing to say.’ Yesterday Miss Balding, an experienced horsewoman, wrote on Twitter: ‘It is wrong to wake up the morning after an event still upset about it.’

She also wrote messages saying there are too many horses in the Grand National, meaning they do not have enough room to jump and land safely.

According to Pete ridden by Harry Haynes, left, falls after jumping Becher's Brook. The horse later had to be put down

 McCririck commented: ‘Racing must review whether horses should be allowed to take part if they get loose and run free.‘For years, along with others, I’ve campaigned for horses to be withdrawn if they unnaturally exert themselves at such a crucial moment. The industry must act to cut down this kind of avoidable risk.’The chief executive of the RSPCA, Gavin Grant, demanded significant changes to the race, where last year two horses were also killed.

‘It’s clearly not safe enough,’ he said yesterday, calling for an end to ‘death and suffering’ at Aintree.

He continued: ‘We recognise racing is part and parcel of the fabric of our country but we’ve all got a responsibility as human beings – after all the horses haven’t got a choice, they can’t make the decisions – to make racing as safe as it can be.

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