Grand National Changes Necessary, BBC Changes Still Needed

Burton DeWitt@bsd987Senior Analyst IAugust 15, 2011

After Ornais and Dooneys Gate were destroyed during the running of the 2011 Grand National, after two fences were bypassed, a Grand National first, after the eighth and ninth deaths in the great race since 2002, even the question of whether there'd be a 2012 Grand National was rightly asked. 

While canceling the race was never really an option, it was obvious that changes had to be made to the famous Aintree course. 

Monday, Aintree Racecourse and the British Horseracing Authority announced the interim findings from their study into the 2011 running and with it, proposed changes to help make the race safer. 

The two fences where the horses died, the fourth and the sixth, will be remodeled, with two inches cut off fence four and removing much of the drop on the backside of the sixth, Becher's Brook. 

Fence one, the very first fence and therefore the one with the most traffic on the first circuit, will also be leveled off on the drop side, preventing the danger of horses falling because they over-jump the fence. Fallers at the first have the greatest chance to cause a mass pileup. 

Finally, toe boards at the base of each fence will be increased, allowing horses to better judge where the fence starts and therefore jump over—not through—the fence. 

Each of these changes will help prevent the 'carnage' that ruined the 2011 Grand National, a National that hopefully one day will be remembered for Donald McCain following in his father's footsteps as a Grand National-winning trainer. 

The question of change has rightly been answered. 

But one question, one vital question remains unanswered: will BBC make the necessary changes to its commentary policy to insure that the debacle of 2011 doesn't occur again?

While there is a fine line between sensitive broadcasting and insensitive, the public deserves to know when a horse is hurt, fatally or otherwise and especially when such fatalities are in plain view. 

Everyone could see Ornais lying in the middle of the track between the fourth and fifth fences of the National, the grey blanket shielding the lifelessness below. Everyone could see the remaining competitors bypass the fence, what was the fourth when Ornais didn't make it and what would have been the 20th had the second circuit been complete, see them bypass Ornais. 

Everyone could see the curtain of doom, the curtain meant to make everyone not see, as they put down Dooneys Gate, a faller at the infamous Becher's Brook the first time around.

Everyone could see and certainly most everyone knew what was about to happen or maybe already happened or possibly was happening just then as they bypassed the 22nd of what was supposed to be 30 fences. 

But after the race, after the surviving 38 competitors either failed to finish, failed to catch Ballabriggs, or just happened to be Ballabriggs, there was barely a word from BBC.

Barely a word. From anyone in any way associated with the BBC to let the viewers know what happened. No update on other fallers, no reports as to who the dead horses were, nothing. 

While Clare Balding eventually informed the viewers who the dead horses were at the end of the broadcast (BBC's live online blog waited until 35 minutes after the race before even reporting that fences were bypassed because of fallers on the course), the half hour between Ballabriggs winning and then were report-free. 

The closest BBC came was when Mick Fitzgerald called the dead horses “obstacles” to be avoided, never mentioning once that those obstacles were dead horses. 

And no matter how you look at it, that was irresponsible. It was reprehensible. It was the definition of unprofessional and innoble. 

Yes, eventually, with but a few dying moments left in the broadcast, BBC did report on the fatalities, but not until the very end.

Not until more than half an hour of celebration and commiseration had pounded our ears did BBC let us know that two horses were no longer living, did BBC confirm who the horses were, did BBC put a name to the pictures that no one ever wanted to see. 

Eventually, BBC did its job. 

When Eight Belles fell on the clubhouse turn after the 2008 Kentucky Derby, mere seconds after she was destroyed, NBC was on the scene, receiving a report from veterinarian Larry Bramlage. Television cameras hadn't even picked up the tragedy.  

The network was just as quick to report on Archarcharch's career-ending injury at the 2011 Derby. 

And no matter how you look at it, that was responsible. The injuries may have been reprehensible, but NBC's handling of them was both professional and noble. 

NBC has time and again handled injury to horses with unmatched class, respecting the duty it has as broadcaster to keep its viewers informed like it would if a football player left in the third quarter with an injury. 

As soon as information flows in, the report will come out. 


Articles flocked the web, tweets came from corners of every continent, heck, in some places, winter snow began to melt before BBC said a word, before BBC even acknowledged what not a soul watching didn't know: that two horses didn't make it back. 

The "Carnage Coverup" it was dubbed, and rightly so. 

Everyone wants all 40 Grand National competitors to come home safely every year, and the modifications to the course will improve those odds considerably.

The inexplicable rise in fatalities over the past 12 runnings of the festival needs to be corrected, and improvements to fence four and Becher's Brook will help. 

Improving the safety to the horses and the jockeys is the paramount concern for everyone associated with the race. 

But BBC should have a concern of its own, namely improving the delivery of news when something bad happens. 

No one wants to see a horse fall, let alone get injured or die, but BBC has a duty to report on the condition of each faller as soon as it has information. And when a horse is destroyed, when the "carnage" is shown on television, that information should be disclosed just as soon as Jim McGrath concludes reporting the order of finishers. 

There is absolutely no excuse to bury the report at the end of the broadcast long after the competitors have been buried themselves. 

The organizers at Aintree put in motion a necessary change, and God willing we'll never get to see if BBC does the same. God willing, all 40 horses will complete the circuit every running hence forth. 

But that's not realistic. 

With almost no chance to the contrary, at least one horse will fall next year, at least one horse will pull up, and no matter what precautions are taken, there's way too high of a chance that one horse won't make it to the following Sunday. 

The onus now is on BBC and no one else to let the viewing public know immediately what happened. 

Fences may be bypassed, but reports of this kind never should be.


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