Hands off the Grand National

The row over the death of two racehorses blends contempt for the masses, risk-aversion and the irrationalism of animal rights.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

And they’re off! No sooner had the Grand National Steeplechase ended at Aintree on Saturday than the race was on to demand it should never be run again, at least in its current form, following news that two horses had been put down after both falling and fracturing a leg.

The calls to emasculate or even ban the Grand National have now become as much of an annual event as the great race itself. This year they are louder than ever, raising fears among racing folk that the National’s future is ‘in peril’.

Even if you don’t care about or like horseracing (I admit that I do both), we should resist the siren calls to trash the National. This mood reflects the rise of three of the most objectionable tendencies in society today: contempt for the masses, the cult of risk-aversion, and the irrationalism of animal rights. The argument is less about protecting horses than diminishing our humanity.

The attacks on the Grand National are thinly disguised expressions of disgust at the fact that millions enjoy the annual spectacle of 40 horses and jockeys trying to negotiate 30 imposing fences over four-and-a-half miles. Horseracing is often thought of as an elite pastime, the sport of kings (although the British royals, Arab princes and other billionaires are generally more interested in the posh flat racing). The Grand National, however, revels in its status as ‘the people’s race’, watched and bet on by millions who take no interest in the turf for the rest of the year. Here the elitists are those opposed to the National, looking down with contempt as the common herd cheer on their favourites.

One animal rights group bluntly calls the National ‘mob entertainment’. Writing in the Daily Mail to demand a ban on the race, a self-styled ‘vet and animal-rights specialist’ (as if they were the same thing) could not disguise her disdain for the great unwashed who enjoy it: ‘On Saturday the country gathered around its TV sets, anxiously clutching betting slips and sweepstakes pull-outs. But I’m afraid I wasn’t among them… The Grand National might be a spectacle that captivates the British public, but for me it simply serves as a reminder of the absolute disregard for animals and their welfare which some humans seem to have.’

There was much more in a similar vein on the web. The message is that certain people find the celebration of the Grand National distasteful, and therefore it should be stopped. The fact the millions of others clearly enjoy the race is here seen not as a counter-argument, but as further reason to put a stop to it. All of which anti-popular miserabilism only brought to mind the observation of the British historian Thomas Macauley, that ‘the Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators’.

This year’s anti-National backlash has also been couched in the fashionable language of risk-aversion and safety-first. The chief executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals announced that the risks in the race are ‘totally unacceptable’ (to who? Him, presumably) and demanded changes ‘to take the risks to horses out of this’. In what has become a typically defensive response, the managing director of Aintree racecourse pleaded that ‘safety is the first priority for the organisers of the Grand National’.

That is nonsense of course. If safety really were their ‘first priority’, the logical thing would be to give in to the critics, abandon the race, and stop men and horses hurtling over high obstacles at speed. The only way to ‘take the risks to horses out of this’ would be to ban horseracing. Instead the priority of those organising the National is surely to stage a thrilling and uplifting sporting event, which they did in spades on Saturday when Neptune Collonges beat Sunnyhillboy by a nose in the closest finish in the 170-year history of the race (and it was not only exciting because I backed the winner).

The truth is that the risks involved in racing over jumps help to make it such a thrilling spectacle. That is why one of my few remaining sporting heroes is Tony McCoy, the iron-willed and apparently iron-boned champion jockey, who was riding the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised when it fell on Saturday and later had to be destroyed. Major improvements in safety have been made, but where there is a race there is a risk. As the champion trainer Paul Nicholls put it after his horse’s triumph at Aintree was supposedly overshadowed by the deaths of two others, ‘There is always a risk in sport. A lot of people need to grow up and realise that is life.’

Such a grown-up attitude to risk in sport is now deemed unacceptable in influential circles. When footballers are barely allowed to tackle one another, and even Formula One motorracing has been made so safe that the last driver to die in a crash was Ayrton Senna in 1994, risk in sport is clearly on the endangered list. Nobody wants to see accidents or injuries. But we do want to see a full-blooded contest.

The racing authorities have already bent over backwards to make the National safer and tamer, especially after two horses died last year, and no doubt more changes will be demanded and made this time. Such ‘reforms’ not only risk diminishing the appeal of the race, but ironically might even increase some dangers – racing experts point out that lower fences encourage faster racing which can lead to more accidents. Malcolm Jefferson, the veteran trainer of According to Pete, the other runner to die on Saturday, was devastated by the loss of a horse he called ‘a great friend’. Yet he was clear that the proposals for making the race shorter, with fewer runners over lower fences, would be a recipe for disaster. ‘You would not have a Grand National any more if you did all those things and I think it should be left alone.’ said Jefferson. ‘[The racing authorities] have got to realise you can please people some of the time, but you can’t please everybody all of the time. If I were to fiddle with anything, I’d make the fences a little higher and go back to the old way a bit more, as it would make them go a bit slower.’

There is no chance of that informed view prevailing. But whatever modifications Aintree do make, they could never do enough to placate the critics until they pulled down the fences. And even then, what about the two horses killed recently on the state-of-the-art flat race track in Dubai? The safety-first zealots will be not be satisfied until they get rid of the risks and the racing altogether, so that presumably betting shops have to make do with televising computer-generated ‘horses’.

The other component to the latest round of National-bashing is the rise of the animal-rights lobby. As that vet and animal-rights specialist idiotically argued in the Mail, ‘We would not tolerate this callous approach towards human competitors’ if they were being injured in athletics. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that she seems happy to ‘tolerate’ the risks jockeys take in races, the point is: no, we don’t treat humans the same as horses. That is why, for example, we don’t give our equine friends the vote either.

As spiked writers have often argued before, the irrationalism of the minority of animal-rights crusaders is now taken seriously not because of the elevation of animals, but because of the diminished view our culture takes of the human condition and potential. Their crackpot case has only gained so much ground because of the widespread reluctance to stand up to their arguments and make an uncompromising stand for human exceptionalism.

The truth is that the racing industry has made tremendous strides in the welfare and care of horses, as with many other animals elsewhere. As trainer Nicholls said of his string of highly valued racehorses, ‘They probably have better healthcare than we have’ – which may also offer an insight into state of the NHS. But in the end horses remain animals. Most of us rightly value them less than humans and see nothing wrong with using them instrumentally for sport, just as we do with animals used for everything from food to medical research. Campaigners protest that there have been 33 horses killed in the Grand National since 1973. That seems to me a relatively small price to pay for 40 years of fantastic sport and entertainment and employment for many.

Contrary to the impression sometimes given, if these horses were not racing they would not be gambolling about in a field somewhere. They would never exist. Thoroughbreds are reared and trained to race. Anybody who believes that they are ‘forced’ to do so should have watched the fallers get up and carry on jumping and running riderless around the Aintree course. Indeed, the irony was that Synchronised’s fatal accident happened after he fell the second time, without McCoy on board. When such a rare accident occurs the practicalities of equine medicine and economics of the racing industry dictate that the horse will often be destroyed – especially when, as with the National runners, they are geldings with no potential stud value for breeding. (Although two other horses badly injured on Saturday were saved.) That’s racing, and life.

But real life and sport red in tooth and hoof will not do for those who want the Grand National banned or at best bowdlerised. The masses must have their vulgar tastes and appetites curbed, sport must be sanitised and bubble-wrapped, and animals must be treated as, if not better than, humans. If they get a result, the rest of are all likely to be the losers.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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