SPORT: Grand National is a fair challenge for horse and rider

Animal welfare activists hope to disrupt the Grand National but others will point to measures that have made the sport safer while retaining the entertainment value

Once again jump racing walks the reputational line in tomorrow’s Aintree Grand National. The grand race is simultaneously both the sport’s greatest shop window and its biggest lightning conductor for welfare criticism. With coverage can come censure.

Half a century after perhaps its most epic finish, when Red Rum overhauled a gallant Crisp, the National remains racing’s annual incursion into the consciousness of even the most indifferent viewer, still the vehicle for office sweepstakes and once-a-year visits to the betting shop.

Countless lifelong fans have been recruited to the sport on the back of initial exposure through the National. It still encapsulates the drama and colour central to racing’s appeal, horse and human combining to produce an unrivalled spectacle of thrills and spills.

Over-production in the thoroughbred industry is a reasonable and necessary debate to be had; dewy-eyed nonsense about ‘saving’ these animals for a fantasy life in some pastoral idyll is an adolescent delusion

It remains the case too, though, that those spills produce a small percentage of equine casualties, including fatal injuries. Easter Sunday’s Fairyhouse action sadly saw Gordon Elliott’s top prospect, Mighty Potter, euthanised after a fall. It’s a grim reality but nonetheless a reality.

Rachael Blackmore, the star jockey in National Hunt Racing.

That fact comes into the greatest spotlight of all through the National. Those opposed to racing’s use of animals for entertainment use it to push their agenda, as evidenced by uncovered plans by activists to disrupt the race in protest.

Since 2000, 15 National runners have sustained fatal injuries during the race. That’s 1.7 % of the total runners. It’s hardly the most edifying statistic but, to an overwhelming majority, the National’s popular appeal remains secure.

Racing can’t take that for granted. Even those of us in thrall to the game can feel queasy about the toll sometimes, and social attitudes to animal welfare are as turbulent as the culture war context in which they come wrapped.

The National is a single day when jump racing has the eyes of the world on it and these realities come to the fore. There are over 300 other days when those same realities apply. It means the sport must be able to stand over what it’s about.

Any decisive verdict will come from the silent majority wedged between those who vehemently decry racing as cruel and extremists on the other side who dismiss their concerns as self-indulgent mawkishness.

Racing people feel wronged by the portrayal of what they do in terms of horses simply as casualties for human amusement. Racing is entertainment but it is valid to point to examples of how sections of the food industry operate, for instance, as a more urgent and well-founded target for animal welfare concerns.

The nature of the beast is that there’s an anthropomorphism in this that doesn’t apply to creatures who don’t hold a similarly emotional grip on the popular imagination. If it lapses into sentimentality, then those who spend their lives with horses are probably more guilty of it than anyone.

However, these are animals bred specifically for one purpose. They are athletes that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, are cared for to a level to which many less fortunate humans can only aspire. They can be pets too but it’s an optional extra. The professional duty of care involved with them isn’t.

Any ban on racing might make extremists even more pleased with themselves but would rule out the very need for these animals to exist.

Over-production in the thoroughbred industry is a reasonable and necessary debate to be had; dewy-eyed nonsense about ‘saving’ these animals for a fantasy life in some pastoral idyll is an adolescent delusion.

That those indulging in it have the digital platforms to gain traction is convenient for ravenous media. But that shouldn’t be allowed to obscure how moderate animal welfare groups have worked for years with racing’s authorities to make the National as safe and fair a challenge as possible.

To the casual observer the race looks like it did when Red Rum chased down Crisp. The spruce fences are unique and still carry evocative names such as The Chair, Foinavon and of course, Beecher’s Brook. But in fact, it is utterly transformed.

Spruce used to rest on stiff wooden frames that punished blunders and made the National a supreme jumping test. Now the fences are softer and reward a near hurdling technique that a modern star like Tiger Roll perfected. The trend is for horses to unseat rather than fall.

Now the race is primarily a stamina test with better quality animals lining up in it than in the past. It can never be completely safe because jump racing by its very essence can’t be. Potential injury, both to horse and rider, always lurks over the next obstacle.

However, having altered the fences and the drops on the landing side of fences such as Beecher’s to make them less trappy, the sport can present the National as a great sporting event without diluting its essential appeal to nothing.

It still won’t prevent official fingers being furtively crossed for an incident-free race tomorrow when millions worldwide tune in. But such an audience underlines both the National’s continuing appeal and racing’s ability to stand over it as a fair challenge.

Something for the weekend

As for what wins the National, it’s important to consider the race’s altered nature. Noble Yeats was the first seven-year-old to win in 82 years. Another seven-year-old with potential to be a Gold Cup horse is Willie Mullins’s CAPODANNO (5.00). Overlooked by both Mark Walsh and Paul Townend, it is Danny Mullins who could get the glory on this general 16-1 shot. Le Milos to chase him home.

Earlier at Aintree, HOME BY THE LEE (3.35) was less than four lengths behind Sire Du Berlais at Cheltenham in the Stayers despite losing much more than that with a dreadful error at the sixth flight. A similar field lines up again and at available 7-1 odds he looks a bet.

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