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​The Dark Side of Horse Racing: We Spoke to an Animal Rights Group About the Perils of the Grand National

Though no horses have died in the last three runnings of the race, some feel that it's only a matter of time before we see regular fatalities once more.
April 7, 2016, 2:46pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

For many of us, the Grand National feels like a largely benign annual sporting event. Putting a fiver on the National is the definition of "having a flutter", the sort of low-stakes wager that even your gran approves of.

Before this Saturday's race, almost every William Hill in the country will be swamped with confused, once-a-year gamblers trying to understand fractional odds. In households up and down the land – including my own – it's a family tradition to place a couple of each-way wagers before settling down on the sofa and watching the race, crumpled betting-slips in hand. The whole thing seems pretty innocent.

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Invariably, it is not.

Since the event was inaugurated in 1839, there have been 80 equine fatalities attributed to the showpiece steeplechase – the main race of the Grand National. This doesn't include horses that have died running the numerous other races that make up the Aintree Festival as a whole. Of the 80 fatalities, 18 have occurred in the last 20 years. The deadliest year was 1998, when three horses – Pashto, Do Rightly and Griffins Bar – were killed.

The Grand National has been estimated to be anything up to five times more lethal than other steeplechases. The factors in this are numerous. The crowded field is an issue, with 40 horses running in total. Likewise, horses are faced with 30 fences over a draining four-mile stretch of course – the longest of any National Hunt race in Britain. This includes infamously difficult jumps like Becher's Brook, a 4ft 10inch fence that has claimed nine horses' lives since 1975.

There have been some attempts to make the race safer in recent years. Having originated as a cross-country steeplechase consisting of a series of smaller fences and natural obstacles, the commercialisation of the race during the Victorian era led to an increased number of fences at an ever rising height – all part of the spectacle, all making the race more dangerous.

Though various tweaks and alterations to the circuit were made during the twentieth century, the most significant safety modifications came in the aftermath of the 1989 National when two horses – Seeandem and Brown Trix – died after horrific falls at Becher's Brook. Their accident takes place at 02.25 in the television coverage below; at 12.15, audiences were given a clear view of the fatally injured Brown Trix, and Seeandem's body covered by a tarpaulin.

After the issue of race safety was brought up in the House of Commons, the racing authorities made several changes to the fence. These included levelling the slope on the landing side and raising the brook itself – the latter in an attempt to stop injured horses from drowning.

Since then, parts of the course have been widened to allow runners to bypass fences – and injured horses – if required. Several challenging fences have been modified, both in terms of their height and the difficulty of the landing. Protective padding has been added to the centre of the fences, while traditional wooden cores have been replaced with flexible plastic materials. A new veterinary surgery has been built on site, while specialist horse ambulances have been acquired. All of this is potentially positive, but – and it's a significant but – there's no real solution to some of the race's most significant hazards.

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Naturally, there's been vocal public outcry about equine fatalities at the National. Over and above that, there are numerous animal rights groups who want to see the race banned altogether.

Animal Aid are one of those groups. Indeed, their stated aim is "to see an end to all commercial racing, because it is an intrinsically cruel and exploitative industry." Though many think that the Grand National is an excessively perilous race, Animal Aid's position is at the radical end of the spectrum.

To better understand their stance I spoke to Dene Stansall, the group's horse racing consultant. As a campaigning body who've lobbied for changes to the Grand National in Parliament, it seemed odd that they would expend so much time and effort on having the race modified, when their essential aim is to have it abolished. "Well, incremental change is good," Dene said. "It keeps people focused, [keeps] the racing authorities focused.

"However, we're ultimately trying to get a ban. The ban would come from people not supporting the race. Racing authorities will always support the race, so we work on that front by getting incremental change – change to the fences, and so on.

"On the other hand, we're campaigning to make the public aware that it's still dangerous, has killed hundreds of horses over the years, and so it's time to see the race abolished – to withdraw your support from it."

This means an end to those family flutters, obviously. It means a collective decision to stop watching the race, to stop betting on it, and to see viewing figures, attendances and bookies' profits decline accordingly. I asked Dene if this is a realistic aim – whether we're likely to see that happen in our lifetimes.

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"Yes, I think that we could," he replied. "It's not about this year, or next year – the Grand National nearly died out in the 1970s and it was very touch-and-go as to whether it would survive.

"There's no reason why those times shouldn't come back again. History will repeat itself to some degree, as it always does.

"We could very easily see the end of the Grand National as we know it, definitely."

Unsurprisingly, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) takes a very different view. When contacted for a response, a spokesman told us: "The safety of all participants is the number one priority for Aintree and the BHA. More than £1.5m has been invested into the course and equine safety measures since 2009."

Referring to the change from wooden to plastic fence cores, he continued: "Since the new fences were introduced there have been no fatalities in the Grand National in three runnings of the race. In the last two years, including 10 races run over the Grand National course, there has only been one fatality from 261 runners.

"The Grand National remains a unique but fair challenge for horse and rider, but the evidence suggests a safer one since the latest investments."

Come Saturday, that statement will either be vindicated – for another year at least – or demolished. Though they actively campaigned for the latest safety improvements to the course, Animal Aid would counter that the lull in equine fatalities is as much down to luck as good judgement. Whether you think the Grand National should be abolished or not – whether you sympathise with Animal Aid, the BHA, or neither – the reality remains.

For so long as the Grand National continues, it seems inevitable that horses will be injured and sometimes killed on the course. Some people accept this, others are committed to bringing about change.

@W_F_Magee