I visited Aintree last year – well, I had a brief stop-off waiting for a train to Liverpool. Across the road from the station is a certain sporting temple most people associate with a specific annual event. The racecourse has been there for almost 200 years, which goes to show how horseracing predates most popular sports in this country, the majority of which were codified and turned professional much later, during the Victorian period. As with the sole occasion in which I attended a football match at the old Wembley stadium around 40 years ago, whenever setting eyes upon a venue one has been aware of via TV coverage all of one’s life, it’s hard not to be a tad awestruck for a moment. Seeing Aintree Racecourse merely from the outside was enough to summon up all those childhood memories of watching Red Rum’s trio of Grand National victories; catch the wind a certain way and no doubt it’d be possible to hear the rapid fire of Peter O’Sullevan’s breathless commentary again, a style which performance poet John Cooper Clarke once admitted to be an influence on his own machine gun delivery.
For those who don’t follow horseracing religiously, the Grand National is probably the only race they watch all year. Choosing a horse to cheer on and maybe even placing a bet is all part of the experience, especially if it’s something entered into just once every twelve months; for such part-timers, there’s a fun element absent from the dedicated online gambler and betting shop drop-out, whose entire future fortunes hinge upon desperately trying to predict the outcome of daily race meetings that have no impact whatsoever on the casual Grand National viewer. As one of this nation’s so-called ‘Crown Jewel’ sporting occasions ring-fenced for continuous coverage on terrestrial television, the Grand National holds something of a special place in the TV calendar, even if – as with many sports – the stakes surrounding such a high-profile spectacle can often prove fatal to its participants.
A bone broken by a severe tackle can curtail the career of a professional footballer overnight; a head injury to a rugby player or boxer can lead to brain damage; a Formula One driver’s raison d’être is to drive at the kind of speeds that considerably increase the possibility of crashing his vehicle and ending his life. Everyone who selects these sports as a profession knows the potential pitfalls before they start, but they go for it anyway, because they’re prepared to take the risk and figure it probably won’t happen to them. A jockey is equally conscious of the particular risks he faces should something go wrong, yet he decides to opt for horseracing as a career regardless; but can the same be said of the horse he rides? A horse doesn’t weigh up the pros and cons of racing and then decide whether or not to do it for a living; of course none of these factors apply to an animal. How can they? Every decision is naturally made for them by human trainers and human owners; they are the ones who assess all the risks that their horse faces. And, as loose horses whose riders have been unsaddled during races demonstrate, once they’ve been trained to run alongside other horses on a racecourse it’s impossible for them to resist the urge, jockey or no.
Racehorses are amongst some of the most pampered animals on the planet – and yes, I include toy dogs carried in the handbags of vacuous starlets and cats whose owners organise their daily routines to suit their feline overlord. Compared to sad old nags condemned to chew grass in empty fields, racehorses are spoiled and privileged A-list celebrities residing in luxurious surroundings, with their every whim attended to by stable-boys, trainers, owners and vets; recipients of the highest standards of animal welfare, they enjoy the finest of diets and get more exercise a day than most people manage in a month. Yes, many are simply viewed as financial investments and cash cows, but in order for them to attain such status they have to receive the kind of TLC that would be the envy of any other animal were they able to have a chat in the manner of a poorly-paid employee discovering how much more a work colleague is earning. Nobody involved in horseracing neglects or mistreats their horses if they want them to win races; they know they have to look after them – and they do. Unfortunately where racehorses are concerned, no amount of exemplary care and attention can insure against accident and injury in the sporting arena.
When a horse is injured during a race and has to be put down, all of the people whose lives are dedicated to ensuring their horse has a long and successful career are devastated. Two horses sadly lost their lives at Aintree on Saturday, following on from another death during the three-day racing festival; alas, as with the risks confronting the participants in the other sports previously mentioned, these things do sometimes happen. The argument of the animal rights activists who disrupted this year’s Grand National is that the horse – unlike the human – has no choice; the horse goes into a potentially dangerous environment utterly oblivious and is being sacrificed to feed the greed of man, whether owner or punter. Horseracing is not a blood sport, but the activist insists there is blood on the hands of all who promote and perpetuate it.
Protests at flagship race meetings – especially the higher-risk steeplechase events – are no new thing; but recent innovations utilised by protestors whose cause tends to be that of climate change appear to have become commonplace tactics, whatever the issue. Aintree Racecourse is a vast area of land that presents police with a considerable challenge when every inch of it needs to be combed to keep out unwelcome visitors, and it was inevitable on Saturday that a small handful breached the barriers and attempted to glue themselves to one of the fences on the race’s route. The protestors did somewhat make the police’s job easier by advertising their intentions in advance when they gleefully accepted ‘the oxygen of publicity’ generously offered them by the MSM in the build-up to the race; and it also helped that they all wore the same distinctive pink uniforms that stood out against the otherwise emerald backdrop. 118 arrests were made throughout the day as protests also took place on the M57, where adhesives were once again employed to ensure activists stuck to the carriageway.
However much the protestors enjoyed themselves at Aintree and relished the anticipated martyr’s money-shot of being cuffed by scuffers, the kind of stunts staged on Saturday are essentially counterproductive in terms of recruiting newcomers to the cause, testing the patience of even those who might actually be sympathetic to that cause; and it has to be said that the overwhelming impression given that anyone who refers to themselves as an ‘activist’ in the loudest voice seems to always be an annoyingly posh and privileged prig doesn’t help either; it just gets people’s backs up. Moreover, the fact that the 15-minute delay to the race’s start due to the protestors running onto the course meant the horses were kept walking round in circles under a blazing sun, causing them unnecessary distress when they were primed to be under starter’s orders, rather contradicted the protestors’ message. Is it really about the welfare of the animals involved or is it really about attention-seeking narcissists with too much time on their privately-educated hands?
Between them, the Jockey Club and the British Horseracing Authority have made great strides in improving the safety for horses at racecourses over the past few years, particularly at Aintree, where some of the more fearsome fences have been modified and reduced in height as well as ditches narrowed and parts of the course widened to enable horses to bypass the fences if they don’t feel like jumping them; on-course veterinary facilities have also greatly improved. Short of axing the event altogether, it’s hard to know what else can be done to appease critics whilst continuing to please those for whom the Grand National is the world’s greatest steeplechase and one of this country’s premier sporting occasions. It seems it will continue to provoke passions on either side of the argument with not even a photo finish on hand to decide the winner.
© The Editor