Trepidation turns to fury during the Grand National

Stable yards at week-ends have been a second home. All three of my children have ridden from early ages. Both my daughters still do. Indeed Clare competes in dressage. I watched her put her beautiful horse, My Scallywag Prince through his paces on at a  wet and blowy Easter Dressage camp near Winchester on Easter Monday.

Holly, my youngest at ‘sweet 17′ had decided to restart her riding and on Saturday morning she and Liz went to book their assessment sessions. Later we all sat down to watch the National together.

The smell of damp horses and feel of Prince demanding his apple from me were in my mind and senses as as the build up to the Grand National started.

On hand to help horses at Aintree

Cathy Hyde © RSPCAI’d already spoken to Mike Hogg our northern regional manager and former chief inspector and had several conversations with our equine consultant David Muir at Aintree.

They were part of our eight strong inspectorate team for Aintree. Six of our specialist equine inspectors were positioned at the start and around the key jumps. That team was led by chief inspector Cathy Hyde (pictured left) who competed for Britain and is now a horse judge away from her RSPCA duties. Inspector Jon Knight, a former national hunt jockey and senior stable lad had opted to cover Beches Brook.

Our highly experienced and professional team were out in force to use all their knowledge and skill to do all they could to help the horses.

I had written to Aintree’s organisers before the four day meeting started asking for extra safety effort to protect the horses. A death in the second race on Thursday was awful and rightly condemned by Ricky Gervais on 5 Live just as I pulled into our Eastern HQ.

But no further deaths, the wet weather and new watering systems belayed my worries. It would be OK wouldn’t it?

Horse deaths are not a necessary risk of horse racing

The shambles at the start of the race made my heart sink. Why was Synchronised not withdrawn when he bolted? What on earth was the starter doing? Surely we could not have another disaster like last year, could we? Some changes had been made under RSPCA pressure, surely lessons had been learnt?

As the 40 horses raced to the first fence the images of the cavalry charge in the film ‘Warhorse’ filled my mind. Then the first faller, and another and another. I looked desperately on the tv long shots back down the field. Had the horses got up? On the second circuit the grim images of the screens and flags diverting the field filled the tv – please, not a dead horse.

Shock absorbing whips, as developed by the Jockey Club, Robert Patton & RSPCA © RSPCA PhotoLibraryThen the run in and a winning jockey striking his horse again and again and again. Surely that cannot be right? What about the new whip rules? A call to Mike told me what I had hoped not to hear. Synchronised and According to Pete destroyed, other horses badly hurt.

As the winning owner whooped, a cold fury welled-up in me. My visits to our equine rescue centres at Gonsal Farm, Felledge and Lockwood. Our loving staff caring and bring back to life so many mistreated horses. These are magnificent animals, beautiful creatures. They deserve care and love; not death and destruction before 11 million tv viewers disbelieving eyes.

Horse deaths are not a necessary risk. Nor are they part of the spectacle. They are unnecessary and unacceptable. Horses are living creatures not crashable machines. The National has to change or die. The nation knows and demands it.

Fewer runners and riders, changes to killer fences, safer landing areas, more stewards to catch lose horses, less fallers, a sane starting system and automatic withdrawal of bolting horses. They are all commonsense reforms that keeps the skill and spectacle but safeguard the horses. Surely Aintree’s organisers can see that?

I’m not resting until they do. From tv and radio studio to parliament and beyond the horses need and deserve our respect, care and help – let’s make the dead duo of the 2012 the National the last. That would make it a truly grand race.

12 Responses to “Trepidation turns to fury during the Grand National”

  • Giles Bradshaw

    ok so you disagree with a horse race because two horses die. I’ve been campaigning against a clause in the Hunting Act which requires me to shoot all the deer I flush with my dogs. I only flush them to disperse them and have never killed one. I want to manage my land without killing any mammals.

    When I challenged the Hunting Act because of this clause in the courts the RSPCA supported the Government in arguing it was right that the law required all those deer to be shot.

    Please explain – why if two horses dieing is cruel is it not cruel to gun down an entire herd of deer fleeing from hounds where there is a considerable chance of wounding and extreme suffering?

    You should have a consistent approach.

  • Sharon

    Well said !!!

    110% with you and the site has my email please feel free to contact me !!

    Will love to help you !!

    • Gavin Grant

      Many thanks. We will be in touch.

  • Giles Bradshaw

    Also to say horse deaths are not a necessary risk is nonsense. Death is a necessary risk of life. However you use and care for horses their is a risk that they will die. Most horse accidents happen on pasture.

    • Gavin Grant

      Hello Giles, As you say life’s a risky business. That is why we all take sensible actions to mitigate risk in our lives and around those we care about . Sensible actions to substantially reduce the risk to the horses running the Grand National will be recommended by us to Aintree and the British Horseracing Association. Our proposals will be based in science and informed by the practical knowledge of experienced Officers with extensive horse knowledge who witnessed Saturday’s events at first hand People who care about animals will support those changes. Those who put “spectacle” before horse safety probably will not.

    • Joy

      Death is a natural fact of life but it is NOT a “necessary” risk of sport. Of course all horses will die at some point, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to deliberately put them in a situation that has a high risk of imminent death. That’s a ridiculous argument. All children will eventually die but it’s not OK for their guardians to put them in life-threatening situations. Even in sports where only consenting adults take part (not animals, arguably unaware of the statistics!), like boxing, the rules have been refined in order to minimise the harm. I wholeheartedly support any changes that lead to elimination of horse deaths in all horse activities, and if the only way to achieve this is banning events, then so be it.

      On the other point you raise, I will be looking into the hunting act rule you refer to as this does sound unreasonable and worrying.

  • Christopher Webber

    Gavin, I am the contributor who set the ball rolling in yesterday’s R4 You and Yours programme.

    I have to say that if you are serious about working with BHA then the tone you’re adopting is absolutely not the way to do it. Nor will aligning yourself with the Animal Aid extremists (as you frequently did on Radio 4 yesterday) endear you to the many millions of racing fans around the world, who open their mouths in disbelief at the crude, emotive sentimentality of such organisations.

    I recognise that, as a new man in post, you need to make a PR splash, and you are superbly adept at doing so (no surprise, given your track record). However, you need to be very careful indeed not to marginalise yourself as far as British Racing is concerned. Everyone wishes to see Racing continually made safer, but we have to use our intelligence rather than our emotions to evaluate coolly what has worked, and what (such as the lowering of the fences demanded by your “Equine Consultant” David Muir) clearly does not.

    Threatening the BHA in this way, and suggesting that Bechers [sic.] Brook should be removed if National Hunt Racing is to have any future, is an aggressive bully-boy approach which will ultimately prove counter-productive.

    On a positive note, good luck with the many much more important and difficult welfare problems that you’ll be dealing with, away from the superbly regulated and highly professional world of UK Racing.

    • Gavin Grant

      Hello, My apologies for the delay in replying to you. I suspect like many people close to any situation you have rather missed the sea change in opinion when it happens. As far as the National is concerned that has occurred. The flood of concern and demand far change goes far beyond traditional critics and embraces many who have been enthusiasts. Those who wish to see this race in particular go forward, and national hunt racing in general prosper, would do well to heed the demands for major change.

  • MorningAJ

    It’s not just the National though is it? What about the other 400-plus reported horse deaths each year linked to racing? (Source:

    Something needs to be done about the whole so-called ‘sport’.

  • Jenny

    The laws governing animal rights and care in this country are outdated. I realise some of you say that most horse injuries or deaths occur in pasture but that is a environment that is generally safe and accidents do occur anywhere. You cannot take an element of risk out of anything HOWEVER the national is not a natural event, we humans force horses to run this event for our own pleasure. The horses have no say in the matter and I do not agree that injury or death should be expected from an event such as this. How on earth in this modern world do we come to actually wanting to watch horses suffer and sometimes die or have to be euthanased just for our ‘enjoyment’. If that happened at the dog races or if we forced children to run a race like that there would be an outcry. There is an outcry over the National that those forces that be choose not to listen over cries of ‘but it’s traditional’. Well up to a few decades ago so was hanging ‘traditional’ but that has been outlawed. If these horses had been shot by someone in the field or maimed by an individual or group intending to hurt them then the perpetrators could be prosecuted but because we force these horses to run for our pleasure, no action can be taken against what is essentially a cruel act. Fact – horses run and enjoy jumping BUT they don’t do it to die for us to line our pockets.

  • Fred Jones

    There have been many changes to the fences, the only real issue now is the number of runners. The horses who race, have the respect and care that they deserve! The lads and lasses who look after them love them dearly. As a horse owner, I know the risk they run everyday, not just in racing, but every time they are put out in the field, they can just as easily break a leg running around on their own as they can in a race, eventing, or show jumping competition. I also find it horrifying that the RSPCA and other similar organisations speak out so much about the national (where the horses are cared for and want for nothing), and yet there are still starving horses and ponies out in fields with appalling feet and no food or water. Maybe the attention should be aimed to sorting them out. The BHA does not condone the deaths and have made changes to try and eliminate them and are continuing to do so!

  • Becky

    I totally agree with this blog.. The way synchronised bolted before the race showed to me that he was not fully ready for what was being asked of him, even when taken back to the start line he didnt seem as interested or fired. I dont agree with the national full stop as the course is too tough and is causing too many injuries.. If owners and stable hands put as much effort into carin for the horse as they do the jockey then maybe things would be different.. But yet again its all about money.. There needs to be changes, its the ignorance and disrespect of those people that stop this happening!!

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