The steeplechase that fires emotions like no other horserace

2013 Grand National at Aintree Racecourse

The Grand National, the spectacular four-and-a-half-mile war of attrition over very different – and very difficult – fences at Aintree in Liverpool, is the event that brings out the once-a-year punters in Britain, and the race that inspires the imaginations of steeplechasing enthusiasts overseas. It’s also the occasion that, much more than any other, attracts the attention of animal rights activists, as Sean Magee reports.


Many Americans have found the lure of the Grand National irresistible, and the race’s illustrious history is peppered with the heroic deeds of those owners and jockeys who crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of their unlikely dream. Unlikely, but not impossible, as the likes of Tommy Smith, who won the 1965 race on Jay Trump, and Charlie Fenwick, who rode Ben Nevis to an easy win in 1980, would testify.

Other U.S. names chiseled deep into Grand National history include Battleship, the diminutive American entire who won in 1938; movie legend Gregory Peck, whose horse Different Class finished third in 1968; Tim Durant, who rode in the 1968 Grand National (and completed the course) at 68 years old, which made him the oldest rider in the race’s history; and Joy Carrier, who in 1983 was the first American woman to ride in the race.

Australia and New Zealand have long been the source of high-class jumps horses – including the giant Australian-bred Crisp, who in 1973 produced arguably the finest performance in Grand National history before being caught in the shadow of the winning post by Red Rum, to whom he was conceding 23 pounds, and New Zealand-bred Grand National winners Seagram and Lord Gyllene.

But on the racecourse – rather than the breeding shed – jump racing in Australia has been facing opposition. As long ago as the early 1980s, Les Carlyon, doyen of Australian racing writers, wrote lyrically of “steeplechasers streaming down the hill at Warrnambool in the weak May sun – a sight some strange people, who will never be poets, want banned.” 

Unpoetic or not, opposition to jump racing in Australia has a history stretching even further back, into the early 20th century, but a particular crisis broke in 2009 when three horses were killed at the Warrnambool May Racing Carnival in Victoria. Following representations by such groups as the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, it was announced that the 2010 season would be the last. But less than two months after that announcement, the decision was reversed and jump racing was reprieved, subject to certain safety measures being followed. 

In Britain and Ireland, opposition to jump racing on the grounds that it is cruel to the horses has been less vehement than in Australia, but over the last two decades or so, it has regularly surfaced around the time of the Grand National.

Two equine fatalities in the 2011 race and two more in 2012 – one of them Synchronised, who had won that year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup – cranked up the controversy, which was further fuelled in 2013 by two more deaths at Aintree on the first and second days of the three-day Grand National meeting. The long-established British charity the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) declared that in 2013 the Grand National was, in the words of chief executive Gavin Grant, “on trial.” 

Aintree took various measures. The distance between the start and the first fence was slightly reduced in an attempt (among other reasons) to minimise the madcap gallop to the first. Arrangements for rounding up loose horses were improved. And the drop on the landing side of some of the fences was levelled out. Although Becher’s Brook was modified, its drop was not removed – prompting the RSPCA to criticise that famous obstacle as representing “a serious and unacceptable threat to horse welfare.” 

The biggest change was in the construction of the fences – 14 of which are jumped twice and two jumped once to make, for a horse completing the course, a total of 30. The wooden stakes at the core of the fences were replaced by closely packed plastic birch, considered more forgiving to horses that misjudged their jump. A measure of the success of that change is that only two fell in the race, from a field of 40. 

The RSPCA welcomed the outcome, with its equine consultant David Muir declaring: “Although the testing nature of the Grand National will always produce a higher level of risk, that risk must be appropriate and we are hopeful that the efforts made so far have gone some way to create a good race, which doesn’t have to involve the suffering of animals.”

Perverse as it may seem to hail the 2013 Grand National as a success primarily because no horse had been killed, the jumping fraternity has always had a problem with how to respond to equine death, too often falling back upon the “He died doing what he loved best” argument, or making the similarly irrelevant point that racehorses are exceptionally well looked after.

Steeplechasing is a high-risk activity for horse and human, and most of those who participate in or follow the sport accept that equine death, while devastating for connections and horrific to those who witness it, is an unavoidable downside to what makes the sport so thrilling.

That leaves the contradiction of two nations of supposed animal-lovers flying the flag for a sport perceived as cruel by much of the rest of the world. But the key to that conundrum, of course, is that the British and Irish racing publics consider jump racing as the pure essence of the bond between horse and man. It is no coincidence that two countries whose cultures are closest to the horse are the most passionate devotees of – to borrow the slogan of Channel 4 in promoting its coverage of the 2013 Grand National – “the original extreme sport.”

The jump racing phenomenon

Read Part 1 on why Cheltenham illustrates the massive popularity of jump racing in Britain and Ireland

Read Part 2 on Ireland

Read Part 3 on Britain

Read Part 4 on how jump racing was changed by TV, sponsorship, and the mighty Arkle

Read the supplement on breeding jumpers

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