Ballabriggs wins the 2011 Aintree Grand National, but at a cost

Ballabriggs clears the ChairWhile 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 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:

5 thoughts on “Ballabriggs wins the 2011 Aintree Grand National, but at a cost

  1. I was just reading several articles about this years race…I grew up in England and faithfully watched the Grand National every year with my Dad…I was really disappointed to read about the two horse deaths this year (though not shocked in the slightest). I was once at a famous steeplechase in NC and in front of a crowd of 80,000 a horse was put down with a shot gun (with tarps of course) after breaking it’s leg in several places running for home — it is, to this day, the most traumatic horse experience of my life. But what about the 22 year old jockey that fell at the first fence and is now in an induced coma with TBI? And worse, Jason Maguire was handed a 5 day racing ban for excessive whip use (and not a first time offender)? There are some real question marks here that go way beyond fence height and footing.

    1. I agree! The scary thing is that by US standards that would not have been considered excessive use of the whip. Calvin Borel has ridden some very high profile races where he’s used a lot more whip in the last furlong than shown here (over 2 furlongs) without any kind of sanction.

  2. Yes, when I originally wrote the post I was not aware that Jason Maguire had been given a reprimand for excessive whip use. I also just recently read that Ballabriggs suffered severe dehydration and was quite unsteady on his feet when he crossed the finish line. It’s actually why Maguire jumped off him so quickly. I think that heat played a role in some of the issues this year, but that the way the race is run (large number of starters, etc.) needs to be looked at more carefully. I have also read that years when the footing is fast tend to have more falls/injuries than when the ground is softer. When the horses can run faster, more get into trouble. Some trainers blame the “safety improvements” such as reducing the size of the drops on the fences for making the race faster and therefore more dangerous.

    From what I’ve read, Peter Toole’s horse was a 100-1 longshot that fell at the first fence during the Maghull Novices’ Chase, which is not run over the Grand National fences. I really wish that trainers would race their horses appropriately as it sounds like this race was above the horse’s ability, a decision that resulted in a horrific fall. Toole is still in a coma as of Sunday night.

  3. After watching the video a few times and taking a really close look at Macguire’s actions at the end of the race, it really breaks my heart. I am not against the race industry by any means, but I counted 16 over hand lashes with his whip from the last fence to to wire, a glaring example of what IS bad about racing (and just one small element). It reminds me of a showjumper a few years back that got a slap on the wrist from the FEI for beating his horse 13 times+ after it refused a liverpool fence in a high stakes jump off. I did read an article somewhere yesterday that interviewed each of the jockeys, including those who fell or pulled their horses up. It was refreshing to hear them explain that the understood their horse was tired or the race was beyond it’s ability and so they retired.

  4. The Grand National is a national disgrace. Two dead horses (described by one commentator as ‘obstacles’), Ballabriggs beaten mercilessly at the Finish (the jockey was given a 5-day ban for excessive use of the whip). Don’t think you’re having a harmless flutter on such races – you bet, they die. And UK racecourses should follow Towcester’s lead and call for a ban on the whip.

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