Sport Horse Racing

Monday 20 January 2020

Video: Protect National treasure

Richard Forristal

You kind of knew as you watched 19 of the starting 40 runners surrender to the Aintree turf on the first circuit of Saturday's Grand National that the winner would only be half the story.

By the time the remainder embarked on lap two, only Katie Walsh had the capacity to provide a storyline that would save the day, or maybe even the race.

At the time, Walsh will have been unaware that the fate of racing's crown jewel might be in her hands, yet the inspirational conviction with which she rode Seabass into third place suggested otherwise.

Pity that the Aintree chiefs and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) didn't show the same strength of character in the aftermath of last year's National.

One of the reasons that the great race captures the imagination of the masses in a way that no other standalone sporting fixture does is that element of chaos and drama, yet they contrived to make it something else.

In 2011, BBC viewing figures peaked at 8.8 million in Britain.

When Saturday's tally is confirmed, you can be pretty sure the figure will be up again, and millions more tuned in worldwide to watch Wexford native Daryl Jacob inch Neptune Collonges home in a thriller.

After four-and-a-half miles, just a flared nostril separated him from Sunnyhillboy at the finish.

You'd think a veteran grey signing off his racing career with a heroic victory by the narrowest margin in the history of the race might have been a worthy headline. Alas, no.


Last year, after two equine fatalities and a public relations disaster arising from the unnecessary decision to bypass fences, the authorities irrevocably altered the landscape, rolling over to minority, agenda-peddling sections of the media and animal welfare groups.

Last August, a list of course modifications was announced, with the drops at the back of fences like Becher's Brook levelled out, and two inches shorn off the height of the fourth.

Runners and riders had to meet certain qualifications, yet on Saturday these same restrictions permitted the participation of four horses that had competed just five, six or seven times over fences in their entire lives.

Unsurprisingly, 75pc of that quartet fell.

This correspondent suggested back in August that taking a couple of inches off a fence that already stood at 5ft simply added to the impression that the tinkering was only an ongoing, sorry and damaging exercise in optics.

Now we know that to be regrettably accurate.

Meddling with a glorious sporting institution that had survived the whims of fashion since its inception in 1839 set a dangerous precedent.

It gave narrow-minded welfare groups such as the RSPCA -- which should have far more needy causes -- a voice, and now it is going to be very hard to make them go away.

Yes, it was sad that Synchronised lost his life after injuring himself while galloping loose having parted company with AP McCoy at Becher's Brook, but that's the risk involved.

If anyone saw the pristine facilities and care that Synchronised was privy to at Jonjo O'Neill's Jackdaws Castle base, they would know just how royal an existence the horse enjoyed.

Synchronised was born and bred to jump and race, so the prospect of a fatal injury on the racecourse was inherent in his being from the day he came into the world at JP McManus' Martinstown Stud in Limerick.

If it weren't for racing, he would simply never have been, and trying to win the National was the ultimate point of his existence.

According To Pete, which also fell at Becher's, had to be euthanised as well, but he likewise incurred his injury while loose. Levelling Becher's drop wouldn't have saved either horse.

Since 1999, the BHA's head of handicapping Phil Smith has been charged with attracting a better class of horse to the National.

To that end he has artificially compacted the handicap, with the best horses permitted to run off less than their official ratings.

Smith has gradually succeeded in his brief, with Synchronised's presence on Saturday presumably the ultimate vindication of his efforts.

Accordingly, we have now had four winners in a row -- as opposed to one in the previous 20 years -- carry 11st or more to victory.

Having these top-class runners is not without consequence.

The potential for greater speed early on in the National is increased significantly.

More speed ultimately leads to a higher percentage of fallers, particularly among the lesser beasts that are stretched, not to mention already competing off unfair terms due to the artificial reduction of the top horses' ratings.

The other element that is now adding further to the likelihood of fallers is the very modification of the fences, which serves only to create a false sense of confidence.

When you combine the participation of Grade One horses with the perception that the fences are smaller, the element of fear that encourages horses and jockeys to slow down is eroded.

That may be why nearly 50pc of the field made an early exit on Saturday.

It may also be why the number of equine deaths over the past six years stands at eight, when in the previous six years it read four.

Change isn't always good.

The authorities and the do-gooders should be careful what they wish for.

Irish Independent

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