While I’ve always enjoyed watching the Grand National, this year’s race exacted a large price from its competitors: two horses died on course. (Note: you can find images of some of the falls at http://www.dailymail.co.uk) I’ve chosen not to publish them here as they are upsetting.
The defenders of National Hunt Club races point to the fact that only 20 horses have died in the past 20 years during the entire Aintree meet (that’s about 21 races per meet). But the toll is still too high.
This is a race that is punishing. There are so many jumping efforts over such a long and demanding course. Add to that the random element of loose horses that jump with the field and it’s treacherous at best.
How does a horse qualify?
Unlike the top US races which draw fewer than 20 entries (some just a handful of starters) the Grand National allows up to 40 horses to start. These horses are culled from hundreds of entries. Generally one third to about half of the horses finish the race. This year, that number was 19.
To qualify, horses must be at least six years old and have been allotted a rating of 110 or higher by the British Horseracing Authority Head of Handicapping, based on races run up to and including February 13 of that race year. Handicappers can also choose horses from outside Great Britain or Ireland at their discretion provided the horses have run at least three steeplechases of similar difficulty and their performance was sufficient to merit a minimum rating of 110. The higher the horse’s rating, the more weight he carries. The maximum weight for the Grand National is 11 stone, 10 pounds (164 pounds).
In this race the lowest rated horse running (i.e bottom weight) were rated higher than 110. Golden Kite and Skippers Brig, both were running off an OR of 138, which is 28lbs higher than 110. The top ranked horse, and top weight, was running off a mark of 160. Some of the top ranked chasers (think Kauto Star, Denman, etc.) are rated in the 170s or 180s. Ballabriggs carried 11 stone and the two horses that died, Ornais and Dooney’s Gate, carried 10 stone, 4lbs and 11 stone, 4 lbs respectively). Still both of the horses that died were considered to be long shots and were probably in races that were above their ability (especially Ornais, who was coming back after a 2-year layup). Could the safety record be improved with smaller fields and more stringent qualifications?
With the Aintree meet drawing 600,000,000 viewers, it’s unlikely to see much impact from these deaths. This race is big business. The National has the largest purse of any jump race, £950,000 and nearly half the adult population of Britain bet on the race. Betting agency William Hill estimated the industry took around £150 million on the Grand National.
There have been efforts to improve the safety of the course over the years, with Aintree working together with the RSPCA to implement changes. These include:
- More forgiving chase fences – they are rounded, more inviting and have a clear toe boarder, making it easier for the horse and jockey to sight the approaching take-off zone.
- Improvements to Becher’s Brook. It now has a higher landing zone and a rubberised area over the ditch to help prevent injury.
- A safer approach to Canal Turn. Re-positioning of the running rails encourages jockeys to use more of the fence and creates more individual space for the horse to jump, helping to alleviate bunching.
- New run-outs at each fence mean horses will be able to exit the course once their jockey has been dismounted. Previously there were no obvious run-outs between the first fence and the eighth fence at Canal Turn.
- Work has also been done to angle the edges of the jump cores on the take-off side to help prevent injury to the horses. High quality padding has also been added to the jump cores for the same purpose.
What do you think? Should Steeplechases like the Grand National continue to run? How do you think they could be made safer?
Here’s the race: