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Different year, same debate

The fallout from the National has produced more heat than light, says Ian McClean

We have been here before: two fatalities in the Aintree Grand National, a public outcry, and, in parallel, a round table of discomforting industry soul-searching. . . this time last year to be precise.

Before 2011 we appeared to have cracked it. The Grand National, through a series of modifications, had seemingly reduced the level of equine attrition to a manageable level. A new millennium opened a new page. The decade from 2000 was the safest in the race's long history -- fatalities were down from 3.3 per cent to 1.5 per cent. Until the double-whammy of 2011 and now 2012.

The reactions this year of the main interest groups, unsurprisingly, are in parallel to last year. The animal welfare lobby (spearheaded by a new RSPCA chief executive) calling for anything ranging from alteration to abolition; the general media highlighting the negative; and racing itself doing its best to rationalise the sorry loss. The slew of post-race comments, predictably just like last year, produced more heat than light.

The solitary truth the aftermath to this year's renewal actually proves is that irrespective of what happens none amongst the triumvirate is likely to alter their view. Most of the subsequent noise has centred around risk reduction in the future. Suggestions include lowering the fences; raising the fences; reducing the run to the first fence; educating the jockeys; reducing the field size.

Some, or all, of these and other suggestions might be useful to some degree but even if the Grand National was turned into a four-and-a-half-mile Flat race one thing is for sure: there will still be carnage.

As if to illustrate the point, David Pipe's Paddy Power winner Great Endeavour was turned out in a paddock enjoying his summer break at Timmy Murphy's when he suffered a broken leg last week. No Becher's Brook. No 40 horses. No breakneck pace. Simply following his own will, unfettered in an open field.

A sell-out 70,000 attended Aintree last Saturday. A colossal 11 million viewers tuned into the BBC to watch the Grand National. That's six out of every 10 watching TV at the time; 600 million more watched around the world. They tuned in to watch what sport does best -- create a spectacle to uplift the human spirit. To eliminate all risk from the sport is to kill the very thing that makes it meaningful. With excitement goes risk. With achievement goes sacrifice. They are the yin and yang of all sport and cannot be decoupled.

Much of the public criticism around the welfare of the horse emanates from ditch-hurlers with little understanding or experience of the subject or the connections of the horses involved. The many self-righteous accusations of cruelty utterly misunderstand the bond between the horses and their connections. A week before the National, as Jonjo O'Neill was contemplating whether or not to commit Gold Cup winner Synchronised, he was haunted by one memory. In an interview before finally committing his Cheltenham hero to the race, he recalled how as a jockey his Gold Cup winner Alverton suffered a fatal fall at Becher's in his very next outing in the Grand National.

He reflected: "I nearly gave up racing that day, I was so sick. I sat in the corner of the weighing room feeling completely choked and it was only Peter Easterby who stopped me packing up." He paused as he contemplated the right thing for the horse before finishing (portentously it transpired), "You just want to put him in a glass cage so that nothing happens to him."

Afterwards, JP McManus, in a measured summary, spoke of the "deep sadness and sense of devastation" at the loss, contrasting it with the "elation and sheer joy" of victory with Don't Push It just two years ago.

Malcolm Jefferson, who lost According To Pete when brought down on the second circuit, had monitored every move of his horse since he was foaled 11 years ago at his North Yorkshire yard. Perhaps he best

summarised some of the reactionary comments. "I don't know what it is about the world today, but everybody seems to know everything about everything -- or at least think that they do. I'm 65 and I don't know everything about everything yet, and I never will. I've been in this game 40-odd years and I know all the ups and downs that go with it. If I get another horse like Pete, though, I would not hesitate to run him in the National."

Meanwhile, amidst the great uncertainty of the National there is at least one certainty. We have been here before. And we will be here again.

Sunday Indo Sport