COLUMN: Is the Grand National cruel?

Sian Lovatt
Sian Lovatt

Horse enthusiast Sian Lovatt offers her take on whether the nation’s most famous race is actually cruel to animals...

Dating back to 1839, the Grand National is one of the most popular races in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is a handicap chase which contains 30 fences and is run over a distance of just over four miles.

The Grand National is a yearly event that captures the attention of many, even those who are not interested in horses and who don’t usually bet!

Leading up to the Grand National I know, as a horse lover and enthusiast I will, at some point be asked my opinions on the famous race. It is inevitable.

Personally, I don’t have a real set in stone opinion on whether that particular race is cruel or not but one question I always ask is: what makes it ANY different, really, to another jump race?

Yes the distance is longer, the jumps may be a little higher but take a look at show jumping. Horses are entered in to classes to jump in the region sometimes of 7ft.

We could say any form of horse-racing is a blood sport, as with dog racing. During all sports there will be risks and unfortunately that is life.

No individual person or group is going to be able to change the way in which our sports are ran. If horse-racing was banned due to being classed as dangerous then couldn’t we say the same about football or rugby?

For example, the whole of the football community were saddened last year by the news that Fabrice Muamba collapsed whilst playing football - a sport that he loved.

The intensity of running around a football pitch for 90 minutes after a ball could be seen as dangerous if we were to get picky. 25-year-old Italian footballer, Piermario Morosini, also died following a suspected heart attack on the football pitch.

There is a risk in all sports. Every time you take your car for a drive you are at risk of crashing or being involved in a serious accident. Life comes with risks and we all take them every day.

Although, despite slight changes to last years race, we were yet again faced with another race that suffered fatalities and it does beg the question of what can be done to improve the safety aspects of the National?

Is there a way in future year’s to come that such results as we have experienced up to now can be stopped?

Take last year’s favourite, ‘Synchronised’, for example: Clare Balding was right in commenting how relaxed he looked in the parade ring, but as soon as he got on to the course it all began to go wrong.

Unbalancing AP McCoy as they crossed the starting line at the beginning of the canter to warm up, it looked as if both Synchronised and McCoy’s attempts at the national was about to end as McCoy slipped and fell off.

Synchronised proceeded to canter steadily to the other end of the course which delayed the race starting by roughly five minutes.

The question that needed to be asked here is: Was Synchronised fit to run after already clearing a good few furlongs? A quick vet check declared he was and off they went.

Unfortunately at the sixth fence, Becher’s Brook, he fell and not long after had to be euthanised after a suspected broken leg.

As a horse lover I want to ask why he was still allowed to run? Should it not have been more closely looked at whether or not he had the stamina and energy left to run another four miles after already becoming lose and running a good few furlongs?

Although, we cannot doubt the decision made as team of vets working at the National are a 5* highly qualified team. They checked the horse over and felt he was fine to run and had not at all tired.

Another argument that often crops up when talking about the Grand National is whether or not the horses are forced to run.

Those that are familiar with horses will understand that if any horse didn’t want to run in that race he wouldn’t. All horses have very strong characters and no jockey nor trainer could force one to run in a race.

For example, lets take the horses that lose their jockeys. Most carry on to finish the race without a rider and often follow the rest of the herd to jump the required jumps.

If that horse didn’t want to be in that race or was forced to then it certainly wouldn’t carry on without a rider geeing it on. 

I remember last summer I had decided to take my horse cross-country schooling, before loading him in to the lorry he was full of beans and really on his toes.

Upon arriving at the cross-country course he point blank refused to jump more than a few jumps.

Usually he loves jumping into water and down ditches; that particular day he was having non of it and after an hour I gave up, boxed him back up and put it all down to having an off day.

If those race horses didn’t want to race or jump I don’t believe they would. We need to pay attention to those jockeys that pulled their horses up due to “not feeling right”.

Those decisions are one of the most hardest and disappointing to make, but if your horse isn’t feeling like doing something, no one will be able to make it.

It all goes back to the saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!”.

Arguments for and against this popular race could go on and on, like any other sport it carries its risks and no one can determine the fate of any of those horses and jockeys on that particular race day.

However, if we do look at what could be changed to improve the safety then one area I feel needs to be looked at is the age of the horses.

I would turn away runners as young as seven or as old as 13. Such horses struggle to cope with the National; no seven-year-old has won since 1940, no teenager since 1923. These age limits suggest themselves.

Most horses aren’t classed as being matured until the age of 7 and by the time they reach 13 their owner usually starts to slow them down. So why still allow ages above and below these to run in one of the most toughest races?

I do not agree that the National should be “banned”. Society and the general public who know nothing about farming and the equine industry have already managed to get fox-hunting banned.

I wondered how long it would be before they took an interest in another sport that could be classed as dangerous and attempt to get that banned too.

One of the most interesting changes last year was the whip rule which was introduced. It is an interesting one which always sparks controversy and generates comments.

No jockey is allowed to be seen overusing the whip anymore and will not use it to “make the horse go faster and faster”.

Jockeys can only use the whip a maximum of five times in the final furlong or after the last obstacle. Failure to comply to this rule will see them receiving both a financial penalty and ban from racing for so many days or races.

The controversial new regulations were brought in by the British Horse racing Authority (BHA).

Jockeys already use air-cushioned whips to minimise the impact on horses, but an extensive review of their use began last November.

Many riders are opposed to the automatic forfeiture of their riding fee and percentage of any winnings when incurring a whip ban of three days or more.

The general public can rest assured that jockeys wont be over-using their whip when racing but if they do so then there are penalties in place that makes sure they don’t get away with it lightly.

The other point I wanted to address was broken legs in horses. You can guarantee every year I will log on to Facebook after the Grand National and see lots of “anti’s” calling racegoers barbaric and cruel because a horse has been put to sleep following sustaining a broken leg.

Sadly, horses aren’t as fixable as ourselves. Although a broken leg doesn’t sound too dramatic and if it happened to you or me we would be put in plaster for just over a month and then we’d be on our way.

Unfortunately in horses this isn’t the case and no amount of money could save a horses from a broken leg.

Horses do not just sustain injuries while racing. It can happen when they take part in any kind of sport or leisure activity, or even while they are messing around on their own in a field.

However much they are loved and however much money their owner is happy to spend on them, there is no way back from the wrong kind of break.

Cynics assume that money is the issue, but regular followers of the sport know this cannot be true. Neither Barbaro, the hugely popular Kentucky Derby winner, nor Rewilding, who pipped So You Think in a thriller at Royal Ascot last summer, survived their broken legs.

Both would have been worth millions if they could have been preserved for a quiet life at stud, but it could not be done.

Horses bones are very strong to carry their weight, but at the same time very light for them able to go fast. Unfortunately this means that when a break does occur it usually results in the bone shattering rather than clean breaking.

There is very little tissue covering horses bones so sometimes when a break does occur the bone will penetrate the skin, causing an open fracture.

I’m not at all saying that in a rare case a horse couldn’t come through a break and carry on to lead a normal life, but through the eyes of a horse, what is a normal life?

Following a break or fracture the horse may not be able to go out in the paddock, it may have to be on box rest for the rest of its life. What kind of life is this for any animal?

Although it seems a horrible thought to put a horse to sleep just because of a break, we need to look at its quality of life after and sometimes the kindest thing to do is let the horse be pain free.

I am a big believer in making the Grand National jumps lower. I know the feedback from this will be that the jockeys and horses will only go faster as a result, but if you take in to account the speed they are going around the course and then having to jump, do they really have time to sort their legs out before landing after a jump?

I may sound a little naive here, but surely the faster the horse is going the less time it has to think about the positioning of its legs and how to land?

By making the jumps a bit smaller the horse it could prevent the horse from tripping upon landing.

Following this I do feel the field needs to also be made smaller. By making the field smaller it will lessen the chance of one horse falling and bringing down another with it due to the field being less crowded.

Instead of 40 runners, why not only have 20? It would be interesting to see how many of the 20 came home safe and sound if the field was smaller.

Following last year’s race, substantial changes have been made and welfare groups are seemingly happier with them.

Two of the biggest changes is the distance of the race which has gone from four-and-a-half miles to four miles and three-and-a-half furlongs and the structure of the jumps.

Hidden from the public eye is a new plastic centre which has replaced the wooden stakes traditionally used to support the structure of the fences. Ideally the intention is to make them more flexible and less likely to cause a dangerous fall when hit by a horse.

In addition to this, an area for cooling down has been introduced, away from the public view. The starting line has also been moved away from the main grandstand in a bid to keep both horse and rider calm before setting off.

Last year’s Grand National featured hectic scenes with Sycronised which I have previously mentioned - and this was before the race was able to get underway!

Whilst there have been no significant changes to the fences, especially Becher’s Brook like requested - a number of drop fences have been reduced, hopefully lowering the amount of casualties.

Only time will tell whether the changes have been successful or not, but welfare groups have commented they are happy to see things changing in the right direction.

At the end of the day as I said at the beginning, different people are going to have different opinions on each individual sport.

Nothing will be right and nothing will be wrong. All we can hope for now is the racing officials have got it right in the changes they have made ahead of Saturday’s race.