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
I’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 Why was Synchronised not withdrawn when he bolted?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.
Then 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.