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The Grand National - A "Game" of Jumping??

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

The Grand National, perhaps the most well-known horse race of them all. 40 runners and riders line up at the start, jumping a total of 30 fences around the historic Aintree course, attempting to write themselves into the history books. As one of the richest horse races in the world, boasting a prize pot of £1 million, it's no surprise that it's one of the biggest events in the horse racing calendar. The Grand National is an event on such a scale, it attracts people from all walks of life to have a flutter, even those who don't usually bet any other time of the year. But it's not without its controversies.... With a rich and varied history spanning over 180 years, the story of the Grand National is like no other.

Silver Birch on his way to winning the 2007 Grand National

A Brief History

The first recorded running of the Grand National around Aintree was 1839, although a gap in history has caused a dispute as to whether there were runnings of the race elsewhere before this. The aptly named “Lottery” won the first official running of the race, coming home 1st of the 17 runners. Back then the race was known as The Grand Liverpool Steeplechase before adopting its infamous name 1847. The race has since been run annually; the only time it was missed was due to World War 2 (1941-45); during World War 1, the event was held in London where Gatwick Airport now stands. There have been numerous sponsors of the great race, the first being Seagram (a Canadian whiskey distiller) in 1984 until 1991 when their sister company Martell took over until 2004. John Smith’s, perhaps the name people most associate with the race, sponsored from 2005-2013 before Crabbie’s took over until 2016. The race since then has been sponsored by Randox Health.

John Smith's sponsoring the 2011 Grand National

Controversies and Opinions

It’s no secret that many people (and in some cases maybe rightly so) have reason to disagree with the Grand National for what it is and how it works. A long distance race, with fences bigger than the ordinary, a 40 strong horse field and a large prize pot at the end, you can see why some people have reason to be wary. So let’s analyse some of these opinions alongside the facts.

“The Grand National is too tough and not fair on the horses” is an argument I hear all too often. The fences in particular have been a major talking point, with many vouching that they are far too big and that is why so many horses get injured, it is not fair to make a horse, a living being, jump fences of that nature. An article I read in The Guardian written by Mimi Bekhechi said and I quote “Treated like wind-up toys, their fragile limbs pushed to and sometimes beyond breaking point, many horses sustain fractured legs or necks or severed tendons, whilst others have heart attacks.” Firstly I just want to reiterate that horses are treated with the utmost care and attention throughout their lives, during training and after a race by the trainers and staff that look after them. Not only this but a horse will not run and jump if it didn’t want to and so the issue should not be highlighted that by whipping a horse you are forcing them to jump a fence and run beyond their limits, more on this later.

It is no secret that falling horses and casualties are an unfortunate feature of the Grand National, and yes the fences are just that bit bigger. Take Becher’s Brook for example, one of the more famous fences in the race, on the side of take off the fence stands at 5 feet tall compared to the 4.5 feet of a standard chase fence, not that much different you may think. On the landing side however the drop is 6 feet 9 inches and so you can understand some people's concern. Another famous fence is Valentine’s Brook, similar to Becher’s in that it is 5 feet tall and has a ditch the other side which is 5 feet 6 inches, and another many have called to be removed due to the number of fallers and casualties it has caused through the years. So these fences are bigger and require more effort to jump and reach the landing side safely, however if you look at the other fences in the race such as the plain fences (4.5-5 feet high, similar to those of a standard Chase), Westhead (5 feet tall) and Foinavon (4 feet 6 inches) you can see that actually it’s not necessarily the fences that are the problem here. The majority of fences are a similar size to that of a standard Chase race in which the horses compete on a regular basis.

The course layout

Further research has provided us with some figures. Again using Becher’s Brook as an example as it seems to be one of the fences causing the most controversy, between 1980 and 1990 there were a total of 42 fallers at this fence with 3 of those unfortunately being fatalities. Take the same spread a few years later between 2009 and 2019, you see there were 23 fallers and 2 casualties, not making an excuse for the casualties but the number of fallers here have almost halved. So for the number of people saying that the organisers and everyone associated don’t care about the number of fallers and injuries, surely this shows the efforts of trying to make the race safer in recent years?

A number of alterations include reducing the race distance from 4 miles 4 furlongs to 4 miles 2 furlongs to reduce the length of time it took to reach the first fence as there was the tendency to head to the first too quickly resulting in fallers, plastic inserts have been placed in the centre of obstacles to make them more forgiving and less likely to knock a horse, the landing side of certain fences has been raised to be more level with the take off side (Becher’s Brook) thus not jarring the horses legs and hosing down facilities have been added to cool a horse quickly after the race preventing any complications. This proves that the welfare of the horses is top priority whilst also demonstrating that such strategies are working effectively. Whilst it is still apparent there is some way to go in making it even safer, it is a very promising start.

Artwork showing horses jumping Becher's Brook

Something else that was highlighted in the article from The Guardian was “Horses are sometimes drugged to mask pain and keep them running when they should be resting.” Unfortunately there are some people in the horse racing world who are guilty of doping such as disgraced trainer Mohammed Al-Zarooni who was banned for 8 years after being found guilty of doping horses a few years ago. Most recently, Charles Byrnes was handed a six-month ban and fined €1,000 for a different type of doping incident. Viking Hoard tested positive for having ACP in a urine sample following a poor performance at Tramore in October 2018. It has been concluded that the horse was purposely drugged shortly before the race in order to stop it winning and was given a “dangerous amount of sedation", not by Byrnes himself but the fine and ban was due to him leaving the horse unaccompanied at the racecourse stables. A suspicious large stake bet was found to have been placed on the horse to lose, alongside two other instances where large sums of money had been placed on the same horse to lose at different meetings throughout the year. These actions are not condoned and I personally do not think it’s fair to tar everyone in the community with the same brush. The fact the horse was found with a sedative in his system is highly dangerous, especially for a horse who has to jump hurdles during the race. This can be said however for any sport or organisation, some decide that they want to cheat.

As previously mentioned, racehorse trainers, stables and staff have a passion for racing, they care deeply about the horses and look after them day in day out with utmost care and attention to detail. To say “the trainers only care about the money” is absurd. At face value especially with the Grand National you could be quick to assume, but actually winnings from the Grand National are shared between four parties: 75% goes to the owner, 10% to the jockey, 10% to the trainer and the other 5% elsewhere (only 561k of the £1 million goes to the winner, the rest goes to 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th places). So if you believe this then answer one simple question…. Why? Why would the trainer and staff do these things for just 10% of the eventual winnings if you were lucky enough to win the race? It is quite apparent it runs much deeper than this and is further proof that these people genuinely do love and care for their horses, they are not “just animals”. It is also important to note that there is routine drug testing after every race at every racecourse around the country, further highlighting the importance of keeping horses safe within the sport.

Moving on to the distance over which the horses race, it has been mentioned a few times that “the races in which the horses run in order to qualify for the Grand National do not suffice.” In order to qualify a horse must have ran in three recognised Chases as well as finished in the top 4 of a race which is 3 miles+ in distance. Chases can be anywhere from 2 to 4.5 miles in distance, the horses which run in the Grand National are long distance horses and so the majority of these will run races around the 3 mile+ mark on a regular basis. The argument that these races do not suffice is interesting because yes, the majority of standard Chases are not 4 miles 2 furlongs in distance and so pacing etc comes into effect here as well as the fences being jumped are just standard Chase fences. But, as we established earlier the majority of fences in the Grand National are similar to these anyway, and a horse which can competently run over a 3 mile distance will have been trained and raced in order for it to reach peak physical fitness before the race. Further preparation can be undertaken by running a horse in races such as the Grand Sefton Chase which is run over the same fences but shorter trips, allowing the horses to become accustomed to National style fences, and at places such as Lambourn where practice fences allow the horse to familiarize itself with these.

In-running of the 2012 Grand National

It is also important to remember that if a horse is struggling to stay with the pace or is not running well, the jockey has the ability to pull that horse up, it will not be pushed to finish a race in which it isn’t competitive thus null and voiding the argument of “forcing” a horse in these circumstances. These horses have been bred and trained to be Chasers, if the horse didn’t display significant promise over long distances and hadn’t been training well it would not be entered, they have the correct pedigree, training and preparation in order to run the race without the need to be strained, pushed and forced to do so. Many people believe that the use of the whip is a clear indication of pushing a horse and forcing it to do something. You must remember firstly a horse is quite capable of making up its mind if it didn’t want to do something, and secondly easily removing the jockey from its back if not in the right mindset. The modern whip is made from a soft foam and is used to create noise not pain, the popping sound the whip creates focuses the horse and is used to merely encourage it to run. As with any equine sport, the whip is also used to keep the horse and rider safe in the sense of changing direction on track and keeping out of trouble if possible. I personally feel the supplied evidence proves that the horses are quite capable of running in such a race and that the pre-race training is more than adequate.

With regards to other types of accidents i.e. heart attacks because the race is too strenuous for the horse, these could happen anytime and cannot be solely blamed on the race itself. The addition of the hosing down facilities as mentioned earlier have helped to prevent this, and there have been horses that have unfortunately suffered such fate at other meetings even on the Flat and so the distance cannot be blamed solely as a contributing factor. Again, the jockey aboard can make the decision to retire the horse if it is not running comfortably, it would not be forced for the sake of it.

Some other factors I would like to touch on briefly are the number of runners in the race and the feeling that it is just a “game” for gamblers.

The Grand National is the biggest race in the world and no other race has more runners, it’s partly why it’s so popular, you get to see lots of top class chasers competing like never before, but 40 runners does come with its hazards and this is an area that I do agree could do with some alteration. Many horses are not actually harmed due to falling, it is in fact because of the other horses around it. Having such a large number jumping a fence in a short space of time inevitably causes bumps and interference whether it be a horse running out across the track, a horse that fell has caused another to trip and unseat or simply just being short of room. Horses have a “herd mentality” meaning they follow other horses. If a horse falls you’ll notice when it gets back up it doesn’t stand still and wait for the jockey, it begins running loose, following the other horses in the race. This shows that horses do enjoy racing and a quote from an article in the Huffington Post by Charlie Proctor reiterates this nicely: “Notice that in the Grand National, or any horse race, when a horse falls or unseats its rider, they always continue to run on with the other horses still in the race. Their ears are pricked forward, they are not in any distress and continue to run because they love it!”. Although a sign they are enjoying themselves, this can then lead to further interference later down the line.

Let me put it to you this way, I enjoy the Grand National, it’s a spectacle I look forward to and I appreciate all the effort that has gone into making it safer. The number of runners however is an area I believe could be improved. Although the idea of a large race appeals to many, splitting the race in two, so having two seperate races of 20 runners (which for some Chases is nearly a standard amount) would hopefully reduce the number of injuries, casualties and fallers further. These races could be spread over a period of time and then the top 6 finishing horses from both races are pitched against each other in what is essentially a “Grand Final” to see which horse comes out on top. It is still the same concept, it just reduces the number of runners in the race and allows it to be spread over a number of weeks, allowing for ample recuperation and training for the horses that progress before the final.

I have been in conversation with Sally Peachey who said: “I am in a syndicate with a horse who has been mentioned by the (Grand National winning) trainer about entering him one day for the GN. I definitely would not like him to do this more than once so the thought of doing it possibly twice in a season would be too much. Some horses are never the same again after a Gold Cup, you have to remember that they go through a pain barrier and some just don’t want to do it again. Also with only 12 runners in the final race, the odds would be high of none finishing”. What are your thoughts on this?

As for gambling within the Grand National, I think you have to look at this from both sides. A lot of money is pumped in, over £250 million was spent on betting for the 2019 Grand National alone. 10 million people tuned in on the TV that same year to watch the race. It brings together people from all walks of life, people who wouldn’t bet any other time of the year, families and even The Queen. It’s not a “game” for gamblers, it’s a historic event that people have grown up with, grandparents remember races from years ago and pass stories down to their grandchildren, for many it’s a tradition. It also takes a lot of money to keep the event going, for the upkeep of the track, the fences, the communal areas for the crowd and the stables etc for the horses. The money spent by people attending the event, promoting it and enjoying it has significant benefits not just to the course itself but also the economy of Liverpool. Around 150,000 people flocked to Liverpool for the 2016 Grand National, just imagine the money the shops, pubs, hotels, restaurants etc are making from this. The hospitality industry alone coined £10 million in revenue that year, helping local businesses as well as securing a healthy financial future for the area. You’d be naive to base judgement purely on the figure spent on bets without fully understanding the economic benefits such an event brings to the area, as well as the tradition it holds within many families alike.

A P McCoy and his Grand National winner Don't Push It

So is it just a game of jumping? I think it’s safe to say that the Grand National is more than just a game. The horses are trained to run, they enjoy it, and if they didn’t want to then they wouldn’t. They are expertly looked after and cared for by trainers and staff who love them as companions, not just animals. The economic benefits to Liverpool go above and beyond, the whip is not used to force a horse to do something it doesn’t want to do, and the improvements to the Grand National in the 21st century alone in order to make it safer really are a testament to the organisers and everyone associated with the sport to keep this special race going for years to come.

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