Synchronised prior to the 2012 Grand National.

Grand National: Plotting the best course to safer racing

Synchronised prior to the 2012 Grand National.
Synchronised prior to the 2012 Grand National.

Grand National. Safer racing. Can it be done? Yes, but careful study needs to be done before any changes are made. Injury and fatality free racing. Can that be done? In the digital world perhaps, but not in live racing.

In an article for BBC Sport Frank Keogh spoke with three former National Hunt jockeys, all of whom have had success in the Grand National.

Carl Llewellyn, who rode Earth Summit (1998) and Bindaree (2002) to victory in the race, said those associated with the horses are deeply saddened.

“The people it affects are the owners, the trainers, the jockeys and the stable staff who look after these horses every day,” he said.

“They are kept in fantastic condition, and sadly sometimes they pay with their lives. It hurts us a lot more than it hurts people sitting at home on the couch saying it’s a cruel sport.”

Mick Fitzgerald, winner of the 1996 race on Rough Quest, said some well-meaning changes could prove counter-productive.

Reducing the fearsome drop on the landing area at Becher’s Brook meant many riders felt more comfortable taking a previously more dangerous inside route.

“I spoke to one of the jockeys in the race and he said because they have levelled off the landing side of Becher’s, not many jockeys went wide and it was quite congested jumping it”.

“What should not happen is a knee-jerk reaction. They have to gather all the information they can, sit down with the relevant parties and make decisions as a group for the right reasons”.

Professor Tim Morris, the BHA’s director of equine science and welfare adds:

“If you choose to lower the height of fences, it can mean horses go faster and increase the risk”.

Richard Pitman, who was runner-up to Red Rum on Crisp in the 1973 National said a reduction in the number of runners from a maximum of 40 is “paramount”.

“If you lowered the field to 25, that course is so wide, there wouldn’t be such a mad rush to the start,” said Pitman, who was runner-up to Red Rum on Crisp in the 1973 National.

“By the first 11 fences, 16 horses were out of the race on Saturday. Fewer horses means more room. The fences are perfectly jumpable, but if you reduce the field by 15 runners everyone has a clear view of them.”

These views support much of what I suggested in a previous post.

I do not favor the removal or alteration of fences, and recommend the Grand National reduce the number of runners, scratch horses who act up at the start, and better qualify the horses who are entered.

I recommend a field of 30; Pitman lowers the number further to 25. Insofar as better qualifying the horses allowed to race in the Grand National, I am informed that this improvement is already in place.

What about scratching horses who act up before the race?

McCoy takes a tumble from Synchronised. Image / The Telegraph.
Jockey Tony McCoy is unseated by Synchronised who gallops down the course at Aintree before the start of the 2012 Grand National, the race that took his life. Image / The Telegraph.

Synchronised unseated jockey AP McCoy and got loose before the start, which caused an eight-minute delay before he was cleared to race by veterinary staff. I believe horses who behave in this manner should be scratched regardless of how much energy they have expended or the opinion of veterinarian.

Look how wrong veterinarians were in flat races such as the Dubai Gold Cup where two horses died, and the Preakness when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke from the starting gate at Pimlico running part way down the course. Barbaro later shattered a leg and endured months of tortuous treatments before he was euthanized.

Something is clearly afoot that cannot be detected by simply checking to see if the horse still appears to be physically sound enough to race.

As a side note, a week before the Grand National jockey McCoy stated he doubted Synchronised’s Aintree ability and wondered if the horse had enough time to recover between races. It appears that Synchronised may have been killed by bad decision making every bit as much if not more than the course itself. I do not think there is a way to regulate that.

What about horses involved in false starts?

The Grand National race begins from what is called a standing start. The runners line up behind a tape. When they are all at the tape facing in the right direction (hopefully) the starter calls for tape to be lifted and off they go.

There are many reasons for a “false start”, but most common is when a horse (or horses) breaks through the tape, sometimes getting caught up in it. The jockeys are responsible that this does not happen.

In the 2012 Grand National there were two false starts.

Pitman states:

“I would like to see a fence quite close to the start as there is such a long way to go to the first,” said Pitman.

“It’s such a big adrenaline rush, that’s the trouble. You’ve got to bring the jockeys’ minds sharply into focus and give everyone who causes a false start a heavy fine.”

I might go a step further and say disqualify the horse involved in a false start. That ought to sharpen the jockeys’ minds even more so than the thought of a hefty fine.

Whatever British horse racing decide to do to improve safety in the running of the Grand National, it may mitigate occurrences of injury and death, but it will not eliminate it. There is only one surefire way to eliminate injury and death in any athletic endeavor involving horses, and that is to ban it altogether.

2 thoughts on “Grand National: Plotting the best course to safer racing”

  1. I think your final comment is indisputably true but a huge part of the problem surrounding the Grand National is one of perception. Most viewers of the race have little connection with or empathy for the sport and therefore raw emotion too often clouds rational appreciation. My own contribution to the debate can be found here:


  2. I like the idea of limiting the field, and esp, scratching horses that act up. It shows they are not emotionally prepared for the event. Of course, unless drugs are checked, unscrupulous owners and trainers could mask things….


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