I don’t really know where to start with the Grand National. I suppose childhood memories are the obvious place. I have loved racing since I was a small boy watching the ITV 7 with my Grandad.
As a small boy I would push marbles around the living room floor to replicate a race with each uniquely coloured ‘crystal ball’ assuming the identity of a racehorse of the day. In my world, Night Nurse and Comedy of Errors were allowed to compete with Red Rum and L’Escargot but it was Spanish Steps for some reason that I really wanted to win my little races, and with a bit of help from me, he often did.
Of course, as a boy the thought of these heroes being injured never entered my head. To me, the real Spanish Steps was as unbreakable as the marble which represented him.
Hallo Dandy was the first winner I backed and West Tip was another firm favourite in the mid eighties and like the rest of the nation I have followed the race ever since.
In more recent years, my admiration for the human and equine warriors who take part in this event has increased dramatically but at the same time, a part of me has felt a little uneasy about the dangers of the race despite the continued modification to track and fences.
My wife told me a couple of years ago that the only time she watched the race she cried all the way through it as horse after horse suffered undignified and often visually unpleasant falls, but, to me these falls have always been an unwanted though generally unavoidable part of the sport I love.
Last year’s event did change my perception of the event in quite a large way as the loss of Dooneys Gate and Ornais in the race itself coupled with the horrific fall suffered by Peter Toole did leave me with an awful physical feeling in my stomach that I had honestly never felt before in almost 40 years of watching the sport.
Since then, 12 months have passed and like most other lovers of Racing, this year I hoped for an exciting race with no casualties. As we now know my wishes for the former certainly came true as one of the sports unsung stars, Neptune Collonges nicked the race on the line from the JP McManus owned Sunyhillboy (who looked like the winner everywhere up the straight apart from on the line), to land my small each way bet and give champion trainer Paul Nicholls a deserved first national winner.
But as news filtered through of the deaths of Gold Cup champion Synchronised and northern star According To Pete, the feeling of euphoria of finding the winner of the race was almost instantaneously replaced by those gut wrenching feelings of 12 months ago.
Less than a month earlier Synchronised proved himself to be the number one staying chaser in the country when landing the big one at Cheltenham for his amazing Jockey Tony McCoy, his wonderful trainer Jonjo O’Neill, and his racing mad multimillionaire owner McManus.
Malcolm Jefferson on the other hand is a trainer without the big money owners but through his skill and dedication to his horses was able to produce not one but 2 horses from the yard to win not only at Cheltenham in March, but to follow up at Aintree earlier this year, astonishing really for a relatively small yard.
Unlike Mr McManus, The likeable Nelson family who owned According To Pete’s who were featured (and shone) earlier in BBC’s final national coverage, do not have an array of talented animals at their disposal, but as the race started their horse could compete with the gold cup winner for around 10 minutes on relatively equal terms (give or take a few pounds of the handicap).
I haven’t been able to watch the repeat of the race more than once but it seemed that According To Pete accidently collided with another runner after the fence and it is this inadvertent collision which caused his sad demise.
Synchronised on the other hand was able to stand up after his fall and continue running and jumping the Aintree fences without the aid of the Champion jockey, however soon after he set off again he suffered a fatal injury in pursuing his Aintree adventure. Others who study animal behaviour may tell me different (and I am of course prepared to listen) but this seemed like a horse who loved to run and jump and not one who was made to run against his will by the small person with a horrible whip on his back as certain groups would have everyone believe.
If ever the highs and lows of the sport have been shown in one month then the demise of this champion for his connections and the fluctuation in fortunes for the Jefferson team must surely define them.
There are people who say that the sport is cruel and almost barbaric but as owning a part of these animals (and entry to leading stables) has become a lot more accessible I have had the chance to meet a number of horses that I had only previous seen on track including some looked after by Mr Jefferson himself. At the same time I have met some of the lovely staff who not only take care of my hero’s but love them as they would their own children, maybe even more! They are cared for, washed, brushed, fed and treated like royalty by those who are responsible for them, irrespective of their racing ability. I am not sure there are any many other animals in the land which receive such dedicated love and attention.
These great horses are truly loved by their owners, trainer, jockey, the entire stable staff but unlike most other animals on the planet they are also appreciated by a large number of members of the public who whilst having no personal connection to the horse get to know them either on TV or at the racecourse and these horses give the racing public tremendous pleasure just by seeing them try their very best.
The aforementioned 2 were certainly whole hearted and talented performers who will be sadly missed.
Thanks to you both for your efforts over the years, my thoughts are with all those connected to both.
So what of the bigger picture for the National? As I mentioned earlier despite modifications, 4 horses (5% of the runners) in the last 2 years have failed to return to their stable after the race.
Everyone connected with the sport accepts that it has risks for jockeys and horses alike but if this trend continues for the next year or two the pressure to cancel the race will surely grow as these numbers are considerably higher than the fatalities suffered in the sports other high profile races even though it would appear that there may have been little anyone could practically do this year, as from first view this year’s deaths looked predominantly accidental.
I am not sure of the solution, that is for the sport’s governing bodies and interested parties to try and resolve over the next 12 months. Further fence and course modifications could be made whilst reducing the number of runners, may ultimately lead to a safer race at the acceptable price of reducing the spectacle, but greater minds than mine will be tasked with this problem.
At the moment I want the race to continue but with any changes implemented next year having been thought through and planned meticulously. After last year’s events, I am a little surprised that racing wasn’t better prepared for the possibility of this year’s accidents happening. I for one was partly dreading it happening again so am a little shocked that the sport wasn’t ready and waiting with detailed responses to difficult but obvious questions relating to any deaths this time around, however they may have occurred.
Ideas for further improvements together with detailed plans of how these would be tested and implemented in time for 2013 should surely have been waiting in the wings in order to reassure everyone concerned that these issues were the central to the sport. Or maybe I am wrong, forgive me for my optimism and faith in the governing bodies, perhaps I am just losing my marbles.