We were courted by Channel 4 the other week. They were in town to film their TV advert. Horses bolting through the city streets: Liverpool and the Grand National: city and horse race. Blood brothers.

“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)

With thanks to, and please support:

Animal Aid
League Against Cruel Sports

Mark Abraham pic: Connors

33 Responses to “The Grand National: Horsemeat and Hypocrisy”

  1. Spencer

    While I agree with the overall tone of the piece, I think it was more the deceit and not the horsemeat per se that turned the countries collective stomach. Only a minority thought it was the type of meat in question, a minority who should frankly get off their high horse (no pun intended). That being said Horse racing is unnecessarily cruel, especially ours.

  2. This is such a sad article! Never understood the appeal of the races. People call themselves animal lovers, when in actual fact, they’re hypocrites! It’s like people I grew up with in Cornwall saying they loved animals, then going out fox hunting! Disgusting!

  3. DocDaneeka


    Well have to say at the outset I’m not a fan of horse racing and in particular the National as it buggers up my weekend every year.

    That said this article seems a little extreme the other way and a bit disingenuous for Seven Streets to run.

    The author tells us that horses bred for running on the flat un-burdened are ill suited for jumping and steeplechases which is fair enough but if thats there point then why compare the National to the others as being worse and conclude that it will be banned at some point. What author means is they want to see all steeple chases banned and so even if the course is brought into line with the others (which would certainly seem reasonable) that this wouldn’t be enough for them.

    You bemoan that 40% of the foals will end up in the meat trade. Yet this is in the same blog that heavily features and celebrate restaurants particularly those that serve meat. Don’t get me wrong I’m a carnivore, I’m just not sure why I’m meant to feel bad about the horses and not the cows? This by the way isn’t an excuse for adulterated food processing but meat labelled correctly is meat and being prissy about one kind is crap!

    Finally just throwing out the economic argument as if it means nothing and is unimportant is ridiculous. You feted Jaguar Land Rover for building the new Evoque here despite the fact that CO2 emissions linked to fossil fuel burning will result in not only the deaths and suffering of far more animals, not mention mass extinctions. Ditto for the concrete industry millions of tonnes of which will be needed for Liverpool Waters and for the Aviation industry which serves mass global tourism which you recently supported in the CNN hotlist piece.

    Thats not even to mention the global harm that we could argue is caused by the military work carried out by Cammell Laird, the environmental harm of the PVC’s manufactured using INEOS Chlors Chlorine, in fact most of Runcorn, or the United Biscuits factory in Liverpool, think of their role in the Palm Oil trade and the deaths of Orangutans? (Arguably more important than horses given their rarity) or Cargills on the dock, their roll in the Soya trade and the deforestation of the Amazon surely must make it worth shutting them down first?

    If we’re throwing out all economic considerations as if they don’t matter when evaluating what the city should and shouldn’t so then a lot will change and the National will still be well down on the list of things we should cut because of harm.

    As I said I could hardly care less about the National. I’ll enjoy looking at the tangoed fools wobbling about in their heels but aside from the schadenfreude that provides it just a reason to avoid town Saturday night and I take all the criticism of the damage done to the animals here as read but the piece strays into a one sided campaigners view of the other issues involved and where it does (as with most pieces by single issue campaigners) its incoherent, one-eyed and a tad simplistic.

  4. carnivalesque

    This is not going to be a popular article, denial and guilt are never easy to swallow in one mouthful. Thanks for sticking your neck above the parapit and hopefully encouraging a much needed public discussion on this.

  5. Marta Falco Ainley

    The first horse at Aintree has died of a heart attack. The jockey was Katie Walsh and the horse, Battlefront. According to the trainer was a wonder character etc., etc., and said, with a smile on his face; really sad etc. Katie Walsh wants to be the first woman to win the brutal Grand National. I don’t believe or think that it’s acceptable that we humans use animals either to entertain us or make money from. I do not like greyhound racing where thousands of the dogs die every yr just to entertain and make money for the gambling industry . The horse racing industry is just the same. I them both and all who are involved in them , take part in them and bet on these brutal and cruel activities. Be humane for a change and try thinking about the horses and greyhounds for a few seconds instead of your selfish human self.

  6. How can they say these people like horses better than humans? Yes they like them better when they are making money and fame from it. Do not support Animal exploitation it costs them their lives! NO EXCUSES. YOU ARE FORCING ANOTHER SENTIENT BEING TO SLAVERY!

  7. Ronnie de Ramper

    Excellent article. I hadn’t considered the basic physiological point before – the obvious point that horses have never evolved naturally to jump over heights. But it dramatically alters the way I see things now. Ban this wretched cruelty!

  8. The amount of made up rubbish in this is absolutely astonishing. It’s only recent that they have put a safety limit of 40 horses, before then the average number of runners was around 45.

    A biased, unjust and untrue article

  9. Just to be clear, it was the vet, Emma, who I was quoting re horses being bred. And I too am a carnivore. But I believe one can be an ethical consumer of meat if you shop with care.

  10. DocDaneeka

    Absolutely and the fact that horses end up in the food chain tells us nothing about the welfare standards applied in the raising them. Which is why the outrage at their ending up in food in the article annoyed me. For all I know the lives of foals that don’t make the racing grade and are then ear marked for food may well be far far nicer than say a Danish sow kept in a breeding crate.
    I guess in shorthand what I mean is Horse meant = bad is silly, Cheap, cheap = bad, is probably a reasonable arguement.

  11. Before I finally twigged how cruel this race was, I went to see it twice and have placed numerous bets over the years. But no more. The word ‘cruel’ is an understatement! I cry far more for the horses who are hurt or killed than I do for the jockeys. It’s their choice to enter the race but the horses have no such choice. Shame on them.

  12. I think the hypocrisy bucks stops right here on this page – horses being kept to be shaved for their hair? Really?? Perhaps you ought to look into clipping, why it’s done, and how often it can be done – as for cruel, it’s akin to having a haircut – as for the rest of the article – get your facts right. There will be more shelter dogs killed in a week in the UK, than horses in a year. You need to prioritise what is really cruel.

  13. JD Moran

    Why the need to prioritise? Seven Streets runs topical articles relating to Liverpool. What is more topical this week than the Grand National being in town? That doesn’t necessarily mean that the people behind the site do not care for dogs or any other animals.

  14. Disgusting exploitation of horses to rake in £££ to prop up the Horse Racing Industry. If Owners, Trainers and Jockeys actually cared about horses they would not force them to endure such an overcrowded, extreme course that has a high risk of death!

  15. calerux

    Utter b*ll*cks! Never read such a biased diatribe in all these annual topical debates!
    Not worth bothering to respond, I will walk away (with my horse) shaking our heads in disbelief at the ill informed & misguided remarks.

  16. load of horseshit, i have trained and ridden these race horses since i was a child, to tell me and my family we don’t care about them is disgusting, my horses are like brothers and sisters to me, they love riding and have an excellent quality of life, this is yet more crap propaganda from a charity industry who feed articles to desperate journos to fill their own coffers.

  17. mua06dt

    Cats are not naturally supposed to live in houses, nor are dogs. Huskies are not naturally supposed to pull a human in a sleigh. Fish are not naturally supposed to live in glass tanks. Camels are not naturally supposed to carry people, nor are horses for that matter. Horses are also not naturally built to contain crowds under the guise of the police, they are not naturally supposed to live in a contained field or pen. Cows milk is not naturally supposed to be consumed by humans. Chicken’s eggs are not naturally supposed to be consumed by humans. This list could go on and on and on for days. The wool of sheep is not naturally designed to be worn by humans.

    The fact is that there is an awful lot animals do in our society which they are not naturally built for. When people stop using horses/dogs/cats/fish/camels/cows/chickens/pigs/sheep/etc. then this part of your argument will hold credence.

    Absolutely it’s all about the money, what isn’t?

    There is an argument for making the course safer, which is slowly happening year by year, with cooperation from the RSPCA and other animal welfare agencies.

    It is easy to structure an argument by getting across only one side of it. So until the world decides using animals for the benefit of humans is cruel and comes to the decision to not use them at all, I’m happy to agree to disagree. I won’t ram my beliefs down your throat and I’ll be happy if you treat me with the same courtesy.

  18. George

    So you have concluded this is an unjust and untrue article because actually the average number of horses has decreased to 40? That number is still too high and the field still too crowded for the benefit of bookmakers. What other information do you have that makes this article untrue?

  19. ..”they are required to operate far beyond the capacity of their bodies’ skeletal strength.”
    “But there is no evidence they really enjoy jumping.”
    “There is only one way to stop the suffering of the horses and that is to ban the Grand National,”
    Sorry – I thought this article was meant to be factual? These are simply opinions with no scientific basis.

  20. Somewhat skewed article , the loss of horses is far greater in the flat race industry , not killed on the course , although this does happen , but behind closed doors , the thousands of foals born that are deemed not be be good enough that end up being shot , the ones that break down in training , due to the fact that they are still too young to be trained n such an extreme way . A two year old horse is still very much a baby and growing both mentally and physically this is where AA should be concentrating their efforts . Better still rather than jump on the bandwagon and slate national hunt racing , please assist in the support and rehoming of these racehorses once the industry has done with them . Make the owners accountable for them .

  21. Red Ruby

    Ever heard the saying you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. These horses are kept in the best conditions. Would you prefer the horse to be owned by a poor person who doesn’t feed it correctly, or has no clue the full requirements of the horse, stuck on some chain as they don’t own or afford the rent for the land. These creatures are provided with THEE best of everything, best vets, best dentists, best equine facilities. Anyone who wants to see behind the scenes they can visit Midlham racing stables in Yorkshire before making comments. These horses are bred and trained for it just like an athlete trains for the Olympics and not just any horse can take part, it has to be earned and achieved and built up to. These people who are against pop out the woodwork once a year and do not fully understand horses or the industry and jump on other peoples bandwagons. Horses can be injured at any time not just while jumping but walking believe it or not. Plus due to the high level of media coverage, these anti-racing people don’t even watch any other race to see the full picture or allow to look at it from another viewpoint. Also notice people mentioning about the money involved, the only people who really earn the money are the bookies. Take a look behind the scenes.

  22. Most horses that run in the National are specifically bred for national hunt racing i.e. jump racing. They wouldn’t stand a chance against their flat bred horses for speed as they are bred to jump! What about show jumpers? are you saying that they are physically not designed to jump? Top grand prix horses jump fences that are over 5′. As a horse owner and lover, I know that some horses absolutely LOVE jumping. I once fell off mine at a show and he carried on and jumped the rest of the course riderless. It is the highlight of his life to go jumping. Without the racing industry, what would happen to the Thoroughbred? Even the horses bred for NH racing are often unsuitable as ordinary riding horses and can only be managed by experienced riders. It is very tragic when a horse is killed but and the Grand National is more dangerous than other races. But it has been run for so many years, is a showcase for the world and the fact is horses do get killed in other NH races and even hurdle races. It is more to do with the speed they jump at than the actual jumps. “they are only horse’ says Katy Walsh. Well I disagree with her and hopefully, most jockeys would not agree with her sentiments. But the fact remains, without NH racing what would happen to the hundreds of horses bred specifically for that sport, mainly in France and Ireland? They would end up at Potters or Turners being shot with inhumane captive bolts, then strung up still alive to have their throats cut. Better they be put down humanely by a vet than this horrendous, scandalous horsemeat industry.

  23. The problem is these articles are not written by people who understand or know horses. Horses can be highly competitive yet these people just don’t understand what it is like to ride and train horses. You have ridden and trained racehorses so you know that no horse will race or jump if it doesn’t want to. I do agree with you that these people really do not understand what they’re talking about. Far better for a horse to have an active fun life than be chucked in a field and neglected.

  24. This is touching a nerve. Excellent stuff David! Good to have our rosy bubble of beliefs pricked by unpalatable information.

    I also grew up loving the National. But as an adult I began to think rationally about what is (to me, at least). In essence its a dangerous spectacle. Something or someone might die and as a child, without understanding the implications, I found this exciting. As an adult with the ability to feel compassion for other living things I can no longer watch. I know the part of my brain that marvels at danger is undoubtedly very ancient, but I wonder what purpose it serves me in this modern day and age?

    The other thing the National does better than any other sporting event is legitamize the betting industry. On this one day a year having a little flutter on a horse is socially endorsed. However, on every other day of the year the betting industry parts thousands, probably tens of thousands of vulnerable people from money they can ill afford. Its an industry that gives nothing of value to society. It relies on the losses suffered by people addicted to gambling and is directly contributing to the misery of those people and their families.

    I sincerely hope the conversation about the role and purpose of the National continues after the race. It is time for us to pull back and look at what kind of society we want and whether this sport – which is really just a big business – is something we, collectively, want to continue to glamourise and promote. In the meantime I wont be watching as the potential spectacle of another beautiful creature dying before a baying crowd of 70,000 people is more than I can bare.

  25. The first and second instances are the opinion of a vet, so I think it likely there is a scientific basis for them. Are you suggesting that there is evidence that horses enjoy jumping? The last instance is clearly an opinion and presented as such.

  26. arbydog

    well I for one am not ashamed to be from Liverpool, and although I am not a big fan of horseracing I certainly wouldn’t try to ban it, yes lots of people make a living from it, well what’s wrong with that ? and horses are bred to race and die in the process well that life, I’m sorry for the sad bleeding heart liberals who would ban anything that doesn’t suit there ideology, I like to go fishing and if I let you ban horseracing it will be show jumping next, then hunting, then fishing, you’ve taken our right to shoot pistol, it’s the thin end of the wedge, and you know where you can shove it, get on with your own sad lives and let others get on with running theirs

  27. the lives of those foals who eventually end up in the slaughter houses is most definitely NOT nicer than that of a pig in a breeding crate, for many their life is just as miserable as the life of that sow. Equine rescue centres are full of thoroughbreds and ex race horses because people can’t or won’t take the time to retrain them, Excess youngstock end up in sale rings and are bought by people who want a bargain but don’t have clue about caring for or training a thoroughbred and will inevitably end up selling them on again or they are bought by the continental meat trade. If they are bought for meat they are herded onto lorries, crammed in so they have no room to move which means they can’t balance themselves when the lorry is moving. This causes some of the horses to fall where they are then stepped on by the rest, ending up with broken bones and internal injuries. They get no respite, no food or water, no rest time until they reach the slaughter houses when they are herded back out of the lorry into pens before being shot in the head with a captive bolt.
    Over breeding for the sake of lining bookies pockets is wrong regardless of the type of animal being bred, it happens in greyhound racing too. Steeplechasing and flat racing are both sport for human gratification and not in any way for the benefit of the horses, they are trained far too young, as young as 2yr old when they are no where near being physically mature, (many breeds of horse are not mature until 5yrs old or more) this causes these horses to physically breakdown before they are truly adults. I don’t like horse racing of any kind because of the reasons I have just given but Aintree in particular is a very dangerous race course and I bet that if 37 riders had been killed there rather than horses the race would have been banned and the course torn down. The fences are too high, too wide, have too big a drop on landing, there are too many of them, the race is too long and the horses that are expected to compete there are simply not fit for the job. Did you know that horses have very little muscle in their lower legs? Just bones, tendons and ligaments, the joints are what take the shock of the landing and if the joints can’t cope legs break, Horses with broken legs, unlike humans, get shot!
    I personally agree with the above article, I think it has given a fairly accurate view of the Grand national and these vets happen to know what they are talking about. If you don’t know about horses, how they work, how they are trained, what happens to them if they don’t make the grade you really should not pass comment on the welfare issues. I suggest you go to some of the equine welfare centres and some of the sale rings and see for yourself what happens to these horses once they have made the bookies their big bucks.

  28. Shall we stop turning horses out in fields? I know of many horses that have broken a leg, had a heart attack from just running around with their friends in the field. O wait if we leave them in stable then that is cruel as that is not natural, and we are restricting them. But then if then break a leg in the fielf that is also just as bad? They even said in the article a huge points which says that it is not cruel. It is natural heard instinct to run with the heard, so we are not forcing them to do anything. And as no one seems to be aware there was recent legislation saying that the whip can only be used 7 times. Racing is not cruel. Horses break their legs in eventing and showjumping so shall we stop those also? In fact should we just turn out every horse into the wild so that we have nothing to do with them and no hard feelings? O wait that would be cruel also in case they cannot find clean water, or when they wander onto the road and get hit by a car. You can not win. Accidents happen. Its called Life.

  29. So your defence for the dangerous element of the Grand National is “but it has been run for so many years” – can you possible be serious? Oh well, if tradition dictates, then let’s carry on with our immoral practices, without thinking.

    It also seems that you didn’t read the article before posting your own response, as they very convincingly make the point that of course horses continue jumping after the rider falls – it is what they have been raised and trained to do, and does not necessarily indicate enjoyment.

  30. LiverpoolCounselling

    Cruelty to any animal is wrong but perhaps a compromise needs to be reached rather than condemning an entire sport and being seen as extremist?

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