Ballabriggs (Jason Maguire,2nd left) at the start before winning the Grand National Aintree 09.04.2011

Saturday's Grand National has provoked heated debate after two fatalities

  PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (  

How horseracing lives with the spectre of death

IT IS simple to attack jump racing, infinitely more complex and challenging to defend it.

Saturday’s Grand National has provoked a veritable storm of protest. Some of the outrage has been from the usual suspects marching under the banner of ‘animal rights’ – whatever they may be. But a large chunk of the disgust has come from the everyday man and woman in the street, and their legitimate concerns have to be taken seriously by the racing industry, because in the final analysis we continue to ply our trade with the consent and tolerance of the general public.

And it is no use jump racing holding its nose and ducking the stark realities. Since 1988the Grand National has killed 20 horses and the spectacle of two of them quite literally laid out for eight million people to see on Saturday has stuck broadside in the craw of many people, not least certain newspaper editors or TV and radio stations hungry for controversy.

Every single argument about the legitimacy and morality of jump racing can be boiled down to one extremely uncomfortable, even disturbing, question and that is: Are you prepared to accept the death of horses as part of your sport?

We will take as read all the usual caveats and qualifications about constantly doing our damnedest to prevent horses being killed, and please let’s dispense with our customary refuge in expressions such as ‘casualties’ or horses ‘paying the ultimate

I can play with fancy words better than most but this is not the time – on Saturday some people were revolted by the sight of dead horses and they are levelling the potentially fatal charge that the Grand National in particular and, therefore, jump racing in general is cruel past the point of acceptability.

Nor is it any use to rail against the cheap sensationalism of the coverage or the twisted logic of critics for whom regard for the truth is an easily avoided inconvenience. There is no point trying to have a sane debate with someone who compares jump racing with bullfighting except to make the small point that on the racecourse everything humanly possible is done to avoid death whereas in the bullring it is fully intended to bring it about.

So we must address the burning question. If your answer is, “No, I am not prepared toaccept the death of horses as part of my sport”, then jump racing is not for you because it is a high-risk, physically dangerous activity in which fatalities are inevitable.

A lot of the problemis that jump racing’s deaths are extremely high profile. As a society we hide death away. We kill hundreds of millions of animals every year and I could show you certain modern farming methods, or the most scrupulously run abattoir, and have you puking in revulsion within minutes.

But such horrors are all hidden from view with the result that someone apparently outraged by Aintree would make no connection with their own contribution to animal carnage on a colossal scale whensitting down later with a chicken sandwich or a juicy steak.

And of course I am as upset as the next man by confronting death. A stricken animal up close is a terrible sight to behold and I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that if I had to face it time and again there might not come a tipping point when I could take it no more.

But I am prepared to accept the death of horses as part of my sport. The worst part for sure and the one that serves up jumping’s vilest moments. And is my conscience clear?
Yes. Is it untroubled? Most assuredly not.

Everybody loathes the death of a horse. But fatalities are just a fraction of what jump racing is about and I would behonest enough to argue that, in an increasingly sanitised, risk-denuded society, the omnipresence of danger lies at the very kernel of its appeal.

I have no argument with those who disapprove of jump racing. But with those who seek toemasculate it beyond recognition or ban it entirely I am implacably at odds.

Those who love jump racing hail from every geographical corner and inhabit all social strata of these islands. They are Everyman and they are legion.

When they make their way to Cheltenham or to Aintree it is not without trepidation of what they may see. But, taken in the round, they find something about the sight, sound and spectacle of jump racing that is spiritually uplifting and nourishing to the soul in a way that no other sport comes close to providing.

And, of course, ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’. How many of those currently howling at jumping’s gate have ever set foot ona racecourse or tried even to begin to understand it before condemning it? There is no tyranny as great as ignorance.

I know many folk, the young in particular, who despite not being ardent racing fans try never to miss the festival because as a feast of very human joy they have found no other occasion in their year to match it.

And that joy is nurtured, raised and rammed tumultuously home into the human breast by an almost primal passion for the jumps horse in full cry. And when one is killed, is it merely marked by some flitting note of regret, or an uncaring shoulder shrug?

Not a bit of it, it is the stuff of genuine remorse, yet still a price worth the paying. The truth is that jump racing gives ordinary people avenues into zones of emotional experience that are increasingly hard to replicate elsewhere. That may render it unfashionable and sometimes uncomfortable, but it doesn’t erode my conviction that it is utterly defensible andalmost wholly admirable.

As sporting sights go, few match the sheer excitement of 40 horses thundering towards the first fence at Aintree for the John Smith's Grand National.

A race steeped in history that always provides a story, the Grand National is the ultimate test of endurance and skill for both horse and jockey, as the pairing must navigate 30 treacherous fences, and then still have enough stamina to make a challenge on the run-in.

To manage a clear round in the 4m4f epic is no mean achievement, with the fences notoriously difficult and offering unique challenges.

Over the years, there have been countless memorable moments, Devon Loch's phantom leap in the 1956 contest, Foinavon's shock 100-1 win in 1967 and the brilliance of Red Rum, who took the chase on three occasions in 1973, 74 and 77.

In 1981 Aldaniti and Bob Champion completed a heartwarming tale when winning the race, as Aldaniti had recovered from a career-threatening injury while jockey Champion had battled back from cancer.

In 2011 the race provided another fairytale story as Donald McCain emulated his father and Aintree legend Ginger when winning with Ballabriggs - and that came just a year after champion jockey Tony McCoy finally gained victory in the race at the 15th time of asking.