The Grand National should be kept.
The Grand National argument
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Every year in the UK in the run-up to the world’s most famous steeplechase, the debate surfaces again as to whether the Grand National should be banned.
Interestingly, this issue completely divides opinion in the equestrian community.
On the one hand there are those who say the Grand National isn’t all that different from other forms of National Hunt and specifically jumps racing, so if you ban this, you may as well ban it all – including point-to-point. Also – other forms of equestrian sport including all elements of three-day eventing are regarded as cruel by some – so why pick on jump racing?
And on the other side of the fence, if you’ll pardon the pun, are those who argue that the big race’s death toll is far too high and that it should be banned. UK lobbying group Animal Aid, for example, says the three-day Aintree meeting in April, whose high point is the Grand National, has killed 32 horses in 10 years. The charity points out that Aintree is the UK’s second deadliest racecourse after Cheltenham and calls for the race to be banned in its entirety – and organises campaigns to this effect each year before the race.
But the Grand National is big business in the UK and around the world. In the UK alone, an estimated £150 million (NZ$300 million) is gambled on the race whilst the worldwide TV audience is estimated at over 600 million people. It is clearly well-loved in the UK and in countless other countries.
Racing also attracts big sponsorship from big companies including bookmakers. Crabbies Ginger Beer sponsors the National itself, for example, whilst most major bookmakers sponsor various meetings and races. For example, the bookmaker 32Red sponsors Goodwood, whilst William Hill sponsors the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. A ban on the race could jeopardise this kind of sponsorship.
It was the 2012 race that really sparked the most recent negative publicity after two horses were killed for the second year in succession. This caused a media storm – helped by the fact that one of the equine fatalities was that year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised.
After the race, Aintree Racecourse and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced several changes including modifications to the design of the fences and landing areas. There were also changes made to the starting position and the extension of a “no-go” zone, depicted by a line on the track.
Aintree and the BHA also announced a three-year research and development programme to look at alternative fence materials and designs. And after a previous review process in 2011, landing areas were smoothed out on various obstacles. There was also investment in improved irrigation, in an attempt to create the safest ground possible.
The new fences were first trialled in December of 2012 and the modifications were welcomed by the UK RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). And after the 2014 running, the overall improvements were hailed by World Horse Welfare’s chief executive after the second consecutive running of the race without fatalities.
In the run up to the 2015 Grand National which will be held next April 11, the debate will no doubt surface yet again. But human nature being what it is, the debate becomes fiercest after casualties, and if there are none again in next year’s race, National Hunt enthusiasts and all those who love the National will no doubt breathe a collective sigh of relief again.
Without the Grand National, National Hunt racing would surely lose the jewel in its crown. But at the same time, the National is, unequivocally, a highly dangerous race and, whatever changes are made; it will cause equine fatalities again in future years. But then again, the same can be said for many other forms of horse sport. So whether the Grand National should be singled out is something of a moot point.
The UK’s ban on fox hunting has caused similar raging debate on both sides of the lobby, though in this case the welfare of the fox was paramount in the eyes of the protestors rather than the horses chasing it.
In the end, race organisers will hope to be able to point to the Grand National’s statistics and be able to show that it is hardly any more dangerous than any other big jumps race from around the world. On the other side of the debate, the animal rights activists who would like to see it banned single out the race not only because it has proved so dangerous in the past – but also because it’s the highest profile race in jump race anywhere in the world.
The debate will continue from both lobbies – and not least amongst the equestrian community whose views seem diametrically opposed; it’s either a “love it or hate it” type of thing, it seems.
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