Do the Grand National Protestors…. Have a point?

At the start of the second lap of Saturday’s Aintree Grand National, the remaining runners and riders were instructed by an on-course steward to go around, rather than over, the first fence. If you had just tuned in, you would not have known why. If you had watched from the start, you would have seen that the first time the horses went over the fence, a runner at the back of the field took a nasty fall onto its head, and seemed to lay motionless. That horse was called Hill Sixteen, and, we later learned, it had broken its neck and was lying paralysed. The field avoided that fence on the second go around because of the screens that had been set up around Hill Sixteen, to allow the vets to put it out of its misery. Hill Sixteen was the third and final horse to die at the Aintree meeting.

After the event, the owners of the dead horse were very clear about who was to blame:

Jimmy Fyffe, who owned the Sandy Thomson-trained Hill Sixteen, said the actions of animal rights activists which resulted in the race starting 14 minutes late “didn’t help” the horses ahead of the race.

Hill Sixteen died when he was fatally injured when coming down at the first fence in the £1million race for which he was an 80-1 outsider. An hour after the race Fyffe, who is also a director of Dundee United football club, was in the Aintree winners enclosure when another horse he owned, Florida Dreams, won the last race of the meeting, a Grade 2 bumper.

Asked if the animal rights protestors actions had affected the horses, Fyffe said: “Possibly. It didn’t help with all the protestors and the horses walking about for a lengthy time and then going back to the stables and then coming back here. It wasn’t good for the horses whatsoever. It’s happened and it’s not a good thing.”

To be fair to the protestors who delayed the start of the race, this explanation doesn’t really stand up. First, it does not explain the two other equine fatalities this week, or the dozen or so horses who left Aintree with life-threatening injuries.

Second, since there’s always room for some nuance, it must be said that the Grand National itself is an almost uniquely cruel and dangerous race: Forty fences, all of them very high, over the course of four full miles. In warm weather. The sight of surviving horses being doused with buckets of iced water at the finish line to stop them collapsing from heat exhaustion is an admission that the race pushes animals – who cannot by definition consent – to the very brink of their ability to survive.

Third, jump racing – where the horses jump fences like this – is especially dangerous for the animals. A study by the University of Melbourne found that horses are 18.9 times more likely to suffer a fatal injury over fences than they are to suffer in a flat race. This is not surprising, and is somewhat intuitive, but the figures are still somewhat startling. The argument that jump racing is a tradition doesn’t particularly stand up: Dog fighting and fox hunting were traditions not that long ago, either.

In the long term, I think this is an argument that the animal rights activists who interrupted the race will win. And in the spirit of being honest, I think it an argument that they probably should win, though few enough of them seem open to the reality that winning the argument almost certainly means fewer horses, not more.

That those who promote and defend the sport know its weakness on this topic is abundantly clear: In the scene that opens this article, with the horses missing the first fence on their second circuit of the racecourse, both the cameramen and the commentators were assiduous about not mentioning the “obstacle” that prevented the horses taking the 21st of their forty jumps. Screens are erected to hide the worst and last moments of a horses’ life from spectators. Presenters do not mention it. Owners scramble, as in this case, to find some blame for the event that isn’t tied to the fact that the horse was put in a dangerous race.

And yet, all of this feels needlessly divisive. There are surely solutions to be found.

In the first instance, these horses have been born, bred, and trained to race. They may not consent to it, but as anyone who has ever observed horses by themselves in a field will know, horses love to run and race. Second, the protestors are absolutists whose methods leave much to be desired: Their interruption may not have been the cause of Hill Sixteen’s death, but they did, without any doubt, stress and upset the horses before a stressful race. Third, there are ways of preserving the spectacle by making it safer and less dangerous: Lower fences, a smaller field of competitors, and a shorter race, would go along way to making aintree less of a horse graveyard.

The Horse Racing industry also needs to come to terms with something: Just saying “it’s tradition” over and over won’t cut it. The foxhunters tried that. Nor should it rely on the idea that the public will ride to its rescue because the public enjoy betting and enjoy the spectacle: You can bet just as easily on a flat race, or a motor race, as on the Grand National.

Public concern about animal welfare is growing, which is a good thing. But that does mean that if racing promoters don’t make changes to ensure that there are fewer Hill Sixteens, and fewer scenes of steaming horses being doused in ice to keep them alive, then there’ll come a day when some Government decides there’s more votes in banning the Grand National than there are in defending it. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

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