Horse Racing: Grand National Struck by Tragedy As the Media Latches On

Antony Herbert@LeeUwishWritingAnalyst IIIApril 10, 2011

Ornais (one of the casualties riden in a pre National event)
Ornais (one of the casualties riden in a pre National event)Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Every year when the racing world heads to Aintree for the Grand National there is an immediate buzz within the United Kingdom. A bubble of frequent discussion as to who you will be putting your money on to win emerges; a temporary craze emerges.

On top of the loyal following and gambles from the racing worlds faithful, those who pay little or no attention to the sport seize the day with a playful bet. Sometimes this is based on which horses name grabs the attention of the spectator, at others it is a lucky dip draw in a healthy working environment event—such is the "excitement" that surrounds the greatest race in the UK in the world of racing.

Yet something that has always deterred me from the race itself is the high risk of equine fatalities that befall upon the sport. I remember watching the event a few years back and in the aftermath hearing that a number of horses had lost their lives.

There is a generic stereotype that I like to believe does not exist in that a horse with a broken leg has no further purpose and is therefore put down.

But the scenes perfectly visible yesterday of two horses covered in tarpaulin was deeply uncomfortable for all to witness. In the modern day world where social networking sites can portray a wave of opinion, many remarked upon the welfare of these horses as opposed to the end result.

We all hoped that the horses would only emerge bruised and unable to race again, but as time drew on it was clear this was sadly not the case.

So many people are quick to highlight that these horses are bred for the sport and would have no reason for existence without events such as The Grand National. It is the epitome of their motivation for training.

The preceding days events definitely highlighted the passion and energy within the sport. You can see why people spend thousands of pounds on bets and become engrossed within the sport. The action is often more tense and wonderfully unpredictable than witnessed in any other sport.

Yet it is the horses who pay the ultimate price.

I cant help but think back on the aftermath of Ayrton Senna’s death in Formula 1 in 1994. The sporting world mourned the loss of a legend. The paddocks of motorsport made drastic improvements as a consequence and as of yet no driver has died since Senna’s tragic accident.

But in the National, because it is a horse and not a human being that has suffered the fatality there is a lot less talk of the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate—the two horses who lost their lives in the grueling 30-jump race.

BBC reporter Claire Balding was visibly shaken and upset upon hearing the news of the two fatalities and gave condolences to the teams behind the two horses that perished.

For many the opinion is staunch—it is just a part of the discipline that is accepted. This is essentially the view that a humans life is valued more than that of a horse. It was nice to see therefore a general abundance of care shown towards the horses who finished as their jockey’s ensured they would survive the heat and dehydration post race.

As it stands however horse racing is still a sport I find myself unable to follow. Despite its admittedly inspiring loyal fanbase, enticing action and competitors of beauty it is still a sport that must find its way to a safer climate.

Too many occurrences from yesterday gave harrowing and distressing visions of the race.

It is the fences more than anything that need to be overhauled. Too many of them were alarmingly high for a field of 40. As we saw, 40 into one just does not go and the two fatalities both occurred in the opening section of the race.

Every time a horse went down, you watched eagerly to make sure that they got straight back up and continued to run with the rest of the field. For some horses, this could not happen with a barrage of horses falling over each other at the same fence.

Hopefully the racing world will not just brush over the tragic scenes of the two horses that could not be moved in time for the second circuit of the track. The remaining competitors had to adjust their course to avoid them. A few tabloids have been quick to judge the BBC’s coverage of the fatalities with the commentator only describing them as "obstacles."

There is no doubt that next year the National will return with a flourish of excitement from the mass of spectators. If one thing can come out of that return, however, it is the hope that the well-being and mortality of the horses are given a greater importance.

Otherwise further similar scenes will only go towards tarnishing the sports reputation. Especially as it is already apparent that the falls of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate and their subsequent deaths have enacted an upset and an angry response from racing neutrals.

Seeing an animal die in such conditions of a broken neck is not how people new to the sport will become fanatics.