“We’d like to offer you an exclusive”, purred Hannah Walker Senior Publicity Manager, Racing, suggesting we hotfooted it down to Everton Brow to join in the festivities.
We passed, and let the Echo have it. Well, they love a good animal cruelty story so much they have their own section. Not to mention a souvenir pullout of all your runners and riders.
“We’re sort of embarrassed that Liverpool hosts the Grand National thanks,” we said.
“That’s such a shame, re horse racing,” the Channel 4 person replied, “as it genuinely is a great sport. The jockeys are very level headed superstars that possibly care more about horses than humans.”
Really? So how do you square that with jockey Katie Walsh (aiming to be the first woman to ride to victory, at this year’s National) saying: “I hope to God there are no accidents this year, but these things happen, and they are horses at the end of the day. It would be a lot worse if it had been two jockeys who lost their lives. I think everyone should remember that.” You can’t can you? Because it’s a lie. That’s also why Walsh was suspended for excessively whipping horses in a race. That’s the truth. Not the PR Stuff you’ll read in the Echo
about ‘fairytales coming true’.
Channel 4’s billboard campaign, claiming the event to be ‘the original extreme sport’ is jaw-droppingly obscene. The ‘extreme’ element they nod and wink at? That participants may get killed. Or shot dead afterwards.
But they’re only horses, right? Here, then, are seven reasons why, this weekend, we’re ashamed to be from Liverpool.
Reason 1. Horses are bred for the race
“The central failing of the Grand National, as with all steeplechase racing, is that the horses are not physically designed by nature to leap over high fences,” Vets in Practice’s Emma Milne, tells SevenStreets.
“Their bodies are not strong enough, nor are their legs sturdy enough. Every time a horse jumps over an obstacle, especially with an added human load, it puts tremendous pressure on its two front legs as it lands.
“The bitter paradox of racing is that the breeding of horses for speed directly undermines their ability to cope with jumps. For what a racehorse owner wants is a thin, light creature which can move as fast as possible – exactly the type of horse most likely to be vulnerable when forced over jumps of more than five feet high.
“National Hunt horses are still bred for speed, and therefore they are required to operate far beyond the capacity of their bodies’ skeletal strength.”
Reason 2: Aintree is the most dangerous racecourse in the country.
It is more than five times more lethal than other steeplechases. Since 2000, 13 horses have been killed during the course, and even if there are no fatalities this year, we probably won’t have to wait long for the next – the fatality rate of horses in jump races is four out of every 1,000 runners (by comparison, the number in flat racing is 0.6). In the Grand National, this is 15 per 1,000. Over the past 50 years, 36 horses are known to have lost their lives, while many others have been injured. (CORRECTION – 37: another horse, Battlefront, died yesterday)
Only 40% of the foals born into the racing industry are considered good enough to race. The available evidence indicates that many of the ‘failures’ are shot at stables or killed for meat, or repeatedly change hands in a downward spiral of neglect.
Reason 3. We’re sick of the myths.
We’ve all heard them, trotted out over the years: Horses enjoy the races otherwise why would they continue to run after their jockey falls off?
“The Grand National’s defenders claim that the horses actually enjoy the races, otherwise why would they carry on racing,” Emma Milnes continues. “But out of instinct, they will try to follow the leader of the pack or continue running because that is what they have evolved and indeed been trained to do. But there is no evidence they really enjoy jumping.”
Reason 4: It’s all about the money.
The Grand National only exists because people bet on it. And bet on it we do. According to William Hill, £4.5m was bet on the race in 2012, up from £4.3m the year before. That’s also why, today, 40 horses race, and the crowded field continues to contribute to accidents and deaths. Dooneys Gate, for example, fell and had his back broken when another horse, unable to avoid him in the melee, landed on him.
From 1839 to 1999, the average number of runners was below 29. Now, partly because of the cramped field, just 37 per cent of all horses entered have finished the race in the past ten years.
Reason 5: The fences are bigger than any other British racecourse’s.
They vary in height, spread, drop and composition, making them uniquely difficult for horses to get over safely. Bechers’ Brook is the Grand National’s most notorious fence. It is responsible for the deaths of 10 horses.
Reason 6: The event is gruelling in length – nearly four-and-a-half miles long.
Numerous horses have collapsed near to the end of the race. In 2009, Hear The Echo collapsed and died shortly before the finishing post. The race is run over an extreme distance of 4½ miles and confronts horses with a combination of 30 formidable obstacles, some of which include perilous drops, ditches and sharp turns. During the race, the heartbeat of a horse can increase tenfold. This can lead to heart attack and, as a totally predictable outcome, deaths at the three-day event are routine.
Reason 7: It’s an exercise in pure hypocrisy.
“It seems like every year when they make the course ‘safer’ horses still end up dying in the name of entertainment, gambling, and exploitation,” says TV vet & animal welfare campaigner Marc Abraham. “I find it odd how the same news mourning the loss of those poor animals perishing in recent icy conditions will be celebrating an event that can cause the preventable public death of others within the same week. I wonder when the tradition of whipping these magnificent beasts over abnormally high fences for fun will finally give in to the wishes millions of animal lovers – sadly very unlikely when huge sums of monies are involved.”
And what of the industry? It claims to care passionately about horses. Yet more than 7,500 horses leave British racing every year – the same number who enter it – and only a comparatively small proportion of the animals are properly provided for. In 2012, the industry donated just £50,000 to Racehorse Rehabilitation and Retraining.
Only 40% of the foals born into the racing industry are considered good enough to race. The available evidence indicates that many of the ‘failures’ are shot at stables or killed for meat. The same stuff that turned our collective stomachs earlier this year. Still, what goes around, eh? Maybe John Smiths should move aside, and Tesco Value Lasagne should sponsor the race.
“There is only one way to stop the suffering of the horses and that is to ban the Grand National,” Emma Milne adds. “If racing enthusiasts truly respected these noble, majestic creatures, they would be unable to tolerate any longer such needless cruelty masquerading as sport.”
There is no doubt that the day will come when horse racing will go the way of dancing bears and cock fighting. But Liverpool won’t let go without a fight. It’s far, far too lucrative a weekend for Sefton, for the city, and for everyone from Modo to Circo, with their Champagne Breakfasts and Grand National parties.
A century ago, horses used to be tethered and farmed for their hair. Their manes and tails regularly shaved to stuff sofas for the gentry. They stopped this practice (at least in parts of the world self-dubbed ‘civilized’) when the industry was deemed ‘inhumane’.
And yet, this weekend, as Katherine Jenkins, The Saturdays and the Red Devils display team whip up the crowds; as the tills ring in the pubs and restaurants of the city; and as our friends and neighbours get dolled up to the nines we should, at the very least, own up to an uncomfortable truth: The Grand National is the most exciting race in the world. And part of that excitement is inexorably tied up in the agonising death of innocent, beautiful creatures.
For our amusment. And to our collective shame.
Place your bets, please.
(Aintree Racecourse and British Horseracing Authority refused to comment on any of the above points)
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Mark Abraham pic: Connors