Saturday’s four and a half mile Grand National featured the most rousing of climaxes with its nose winning margin verdict being the shortest, I believe, in its near two hundred year history.
The race was also notable for a 62.5% non-completion ratio, which included exactly half the field falling, unseating or being brought down. Of course, the saddest element of the known Grand National risks was that two horses – including the Gold Cup winner, Synchronised – were fatally injured.
So, where now for the Grand National? Amidst the slings and arrows of, generally, well-meaning external factions, which have been met and robustly defended by the sport’s governance, I’ll try to piece together some of the facts behind the rhetoric to enable you to make your own mind up on whether there are issues which need addressing in the greatest race of them all.
To do this, I’ll consider a series of elements, and take a longer term view than the last two renewals of the Grand National which have both gained infamy for the deaths of a pair of gallant competitors.
First up, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: the deaths of two horses in the 2012 running, following on from two horses dying in the 2011 running.
The death of any race horse on a racecourse must be treated as a matter for review and, in that spirit, it obviously makes sense to consider how the horses were injured/died.
In 2011, Ornais and Dooneys Gate both broke their necks from shuddering falls at the fourth and sixth fences respectively. The sixth is Bechers Brook, the only drop fence (i.e. fence where the ground on the landing side is lower than that on the take off side) left outside of the cross country discipline in UK, as I understand.
Certainly, I couldn’t find reference to another, since the amendments to Haydock Park, which used to have ten such fences.
So, in 2011, the two deaths could be said to be related directly to the combination of the fences and bad jumping errors.
In 2012, Synchronised fell at Bechers but carried on running riderless before injuring himself some time thereafter in an extremely unfortunate incident. According To Pete, the other fatality this year, was brought down by another horse at Bechers Brook second time around.
As you can see, neither fatality in 2012 was directly related to a combination of the fences and bad jumping errors on the part of those injured.
But this is clearly far too small a sample to be meaningful. Before we look at a slightly more representative sample, be aware that modifications were made to both the fences which directly caused the deaths of horses in 2011’s race, the fourth and the sixth.
Inasmuch as no horses were directly killed this time, it can be argued that the changes (the fourth fence has been reduced in height by two inches, and the drop on the landing side at Bechers has been reduced by between a third and a half – four to five inches) have been successful.
Or at least partially so. In point of fact, it is of course far too early to say.
Next I want to address the perceived jumping frailties in the specific case of Synchronised. Firstly, I feel that his connections were super sporting in deciding to run here. Having won the Gold Cup a month ago for the first time in his extensive ownership career, J P McManus decided to have a crack at the other big race and attempt a double not successfully completed since Golden Miller back in 1934.
There was an extra week between the races this year, due to Easter, and it can be taken as read that neither owner nor trainer would have risked such a prize equine asset were they not happy that the animal was recovered, and ready.
Synchronised did decant Tony McCoy on the way to the start, but close inspection of that incident appears to reveal that he may have put a foot in a hole or something similar. What is uncontested is that Synchronised did not veer from a straight line, or in any way jink or deliberately try to throw McCoy.
He then ran loose for a couple of minutes at a slow pace. The incident would have probably confused the horse, as he’s unused to touring the race track without a pilot.
Indeed, despite much noise prior to the event, Synchronised had actually only fallen once in his racing career, and that in a hurdle race at the Cheltenham Festival. By bizarre coincidence, According To Pete had also only ever fallen once, and also in a hurdle race.
Synchronised has always been called a bad jumper. His race record implies he’s an effective jumper, in the same way that Jim Furyk has a hopelessly unclassical swing; and that Michael Johnson had his own way of sprinting.
Because it looks ungainly does not mean it is ineffective. Synchronised after all cleared 24 fences in heavy ground over four and a quarter miles when winning the Midlands National, lugging 11-05; he jumped 22 fences in soft ground under 11-06 when winning the Welsh National; he cleared the seventeen fences of the Grade 1 Lexus Chase with sufficient alacrity to beat established Grade 1 performers under the Grade 1 burden of 11-10; and, of course, he dealt with the rhythmic demands of Cheltenham’s undulations, as well as its 22 fences and three and a quarter miles, in the Gold Cup, again under 11-10.
So, no, I simply cannot entertain the notion that Synchronised was a bad jumper. An unconventional jumper, yes. But a bad jumper? There’s no evidence to support that whatsoever.
OK, from the micro, let’s now look at the macro situation.
There’s no doubt in my mind that changes made to the course in recent years have had a positive influence on horse welfare, despite the headline fatality statistics.
Perhaps the most interesting (and probably the second most significant) statistic I could find was this: of the last ten horses fatally injured in the Grand National, only three were fatally injured falling with their riders.
Five of the last ten fatally injured horses were running riderless at the time, a number that includes Synchronised, as well as McKelvey (2008), Graphic Approach (2007), Thyenandthyneagain (2006), and The Last Fling (2002).
Of the other two, Hear The Echo (2009) collapsed on the run in from a heart attack; and, Goguenard (2003) was injured in a pile up at the 19th, where he unseated Warren Marston.
So, on that evidence the changes to the fences and the entry criteria for the race could be said to be a success, at least partially. Clearly, despite the tragic deaths of Synchronised and According To Pete, the Bechers Brook modifications have helped. Although the record shows that Synchronised fell at Bechers, he was not fatally injured there; and According To Pete’s bringing down was a horrible accident, as it was on the second circuit when only half the field were still going.
The fence four modifications also appear to have helped: in 2011, two horses fell on the first circuit, including the fatally injured Ornais.
This time around there were no fallers.
It should be added that Noel Fehily, the rider of State of Play, also sustained a broken leg.
But I think there is a bigger issue that has not yet been adequately addressed, and I have a radical proposal to help address it. The issue is that of speed in the early part of the race. It has long been held that the way to win the Grand National is to be prominent early through a mad gallop, and to cling on late when stamina is running out.
Consider this: Neptune Collonges was last from the start and not prominent until Bechers second time (as the above image shows), so there is no necessity to be close up early.
More importantly, consider this: the first two furlongs of the Listed Further Flight Stakes, a 1m6f flat race, were run in around 27.5 seconds (hand timed) last week.
The approximately two furlong run from the start of the Grand National to the first fence was completed this year in 26.5 seconds. Last year, it was a slightly more measured 27.6 seconds (all hand timed).
This is patently too fast, and extremely dangerous. And it creates a problem of momentum: once a rider has a horse travelling at that pace, trying to establish a position and a rhythm in the race, that rider must maintain the pace. Or at least feels he must.
The breakdown of race pace, and fallers, in the early part of the last two races, is as follows:
The first two fences on the course are pretty straightforward (at least relatively), and the number of fallers is generally down to horses and jockeys going too quickly. We can see how the times seem to even out after fence four.
Whilst pure speed is clearly an issue, it is compounded heavily by the volume of competitors charging towards the first. Forty runners is a lot. Forty runners travelling quicker than Listed class flat pace in a four and half mile steeplechase is a recipe for disaster.
We don’t really have the use of a ‘safety car’, as they do in Formula 1, to regulate speed. But there are other ways to do this.
Firstly, by reducing the number of runners, one would reduce the speed to the first fence, as there would be less competition for prominent positions.
That is controversial, but being suggested by channels more closely related to authority than this blogger.
It is instructive to note that, since the discretionary handicapping was introduced for the race a few years ago, the first four home each time were in the top thirty in the weights. This implies that a reduction in the field size would have little or no impact on the results.
Obviously, there would be hard luck stories regarding horses who ‘didn’t get in’, but that’s always been the case. As recently as 2003, Amberleigh House missed the cut, before winning the following year off a sufficiently high rating to guarantee a run.
Moreover, this is mitigated by the fact that ‘an Aintree horse’ could be allotted a significantly higher rating for the Aintree race, which would give that a horse a better chance of making the final thirty.
It is my opinion that a reduction in the field size would do little to dilute the quality, (positive) drama, or – ultimately – the race results.
Secondly, by reducing the run from the race start to the first fence by a distance of around a furlong, one would reduce the speed at which that first fence is taken. That is extremely controversial, and something I’ve not read or heard mentioned anywhere else.
Sure, it would reduce the distance of the race by a furlong. But at 4m3f, the Grand National would still be the longest race in the British calendar, and it would retain all of its fences (not all of which have been jumped in the last two years).
And there would still be a furlong run before horses were asked to leave the ground, and a two and a half furlong run in past the elbow at the finish. In other words, the change would be cosmetic from a visual perspective, but could be transformational from a safety perspective.
Would a 4m3f race really be materially any less of a stamina test?
There will be those that argue that it would have changed the result of this year’s race, and that may be true. It may however also be true that Neptune Collonges would have been asked for maximum effort sooner, thus replicating the result over a furlong shorter trip.
Such arguments are matters of conjecture and add little value here.
In summary, much has been made of the extremely unfortunate deaths of four horses in the last two Grand Nationals. It should however be taken in the wider context that, prior to the last two years, the fatality rate this century was 1.5%. Whilst this will never appease some parts of society, it is considerably more acceptable than the 3.3% fatality rate witnessed in the 1990s.
Those same factions of society will generally not rest until racing is banned: jump racing first, and then the focus would turn to the flat. And those same factions of society often have little to no right to make such comments. At the very least, they generally do not have the right to be as vociferous.
In Rod Street’s excellent blog on the matter, he found that about two-fifths of the British population have no interest whatsoever in horse racing. That’s fair enough. But, of that 39%, a quarter of them said they thought racing was ‘cruel’. Based on what awareness is this? As Street says,
At the centre of this issue is the animal and, again, we need to show greater collective confidence here. At the very heart of our sport are people who love the horse, (sometimes to the exclusion of all other things). When I hear those opposed to racing making unqualified assertions about horse welfare, I’m saddened that a greater voice is not given to both those who know their stuff and those that care deeply. Although we do have to face up to the fact that reasoned argument will never make as good copy or airtime as melodramatic assertions.
Who was more deeply affected by the loss of two horses yesterday? The once-removed haters or the teams driving back to their yard with an empty horse box? Who better understands the level of care provide to racehorses? The annual radio phone-in guest or those who work in the sport seven days a week?
The losses this year and last are a high price to pay for the brilliant spectacle of the Grand National, and it is my contention that the less obvious elements of the course constitution (i.e. the distance to the first fence), and the number of participants, are the areas for consideration, not the fences themselves.
If we can make the race safer, we need to do that. Not for those outside of the sport, who have little or no interest in anything constructive, but for those of us who have a passion for the sport, and the animals.
It’s time for racing to deal unequivocally with its persecution complex!
So that’s my view…
What are your thoughts on the National? How can we retain its place as a spectacle whilst maintaining the central premise of horse and rider welfare?
On a more positive note, unless you backed Sunnyhill Boy, here is the photo finish from the race. It really was a double heart break for JP McManus, as another of his entries was mugged on the line by a horse who almost refused to race at the start.