How to save the National after tragic death of Synchronised
The closest ever finish is overshadowed by deaths of two horses: now it's time to reduce the field
IT WAS the best of Nationals. It was the worst of Nationals. It was also the end of an era. BBC television, covering the historic steeplechase for the last time after a 52-year association before it moves to Channel 4, could not have gone out with a more dramatic, incident-packed broadcast.
On the positive side, we saw the closest finish in the race's history, as 33-1 outsider Neptune Collonges pipped Sunnyhill Boy by a nostril in a photo-finish. Third was Seabass, ridden by Katie Walsh, who, came close to becoming the first woman rider ever to win the race.
But elsewhere on the Aintree track a very different story was being played out, as two fine horses, the Gold Cup winner Synchronised (above), and the gallant Northern handicapper According to Pete, were destroyed after injuries sustained following falls at Becher's Brook, the National's most dangerous fence.
Both deaths were incredibly poignant. Synchronised, who only four weeks earlier was being cheered to the rafters as the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, had held up the start of the race for ten minutes after he had unshipped jockey Tony McCoy when going down to the start.
In scenes that might have come from a Hollywood movie, millions of television viewers across the world watched this lovely horse canter around the track riderless before being caught by a press photographer. "He's a real gentleman," said commentator Mick Fitzgerald of Synchronised as the horse was taken back towards the start.
McCoy, back on board, took Synchronised down to see the first fence. His mount looked away. "I don't think he fancies it much", declared the BBC's Clare Balding, adding quickly: "I know that's a silly thing to say". Maybe it wasn't so silly.
Before announcing that Synchronised would take part in the National just 29 days after Cheltenham, trainer Jonjo O'Neill had said that the horse ideally would have enjoyed a longer break between races.
As I wrote about Synchronised in my Intelligent Punter's Guide to the National, "The worry is that this might come too soon after his Cheltenham exertions."
All the statistics were against Synchronised yesterday: of the 16 Gold Cup winners who have tried to follow up in the Grand National in the same year, ten have failed to complete the course, and only won, Golden Miller, back in 1934, has ever won.
For Jonjo O'Neill, a jockey turned trainer, yesterday's tragedy was a horrible replay of what occurred in the 1979 Grand National, when Alverton, the horse he had ridden to success in the Gold Cup a few weeks earlier, was killed, like Synchronised, following a fall at Becher's.
What tempted O'Neill to run Synchronised was knowing that the horse would never be so well handicapped again in a Grand National, because his Gold Cup win came after the National weights were framed.
According to Pete, the other horse destroyed yesterday, had been featured in a mini-documentary by the BBC's National presenter Clare Balding.
He was running a blinder and was still in contention as he made it to Becher's on the second circuit. Then he suffered a terrible misfortune: through no fault of his own he was brought down by another horse's fall, and broke his leg. Television viewers were able to see the poor animal, who seconds earlier had been in with a real chance of glory, run off with one leg dangling.
Inevitably, after these two deaths, there have been fresh calls to ban the race. "If owners, jockeys and trainers really care about their horses, why do they continue to put them through this terrible ordeal year after year?" asks Tony Moore, chairman of Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe, an animal rights group which had held a vocal protest outside the Aintree course before racing yesterday. "The Grand National is a national disgrace."
For the Aintree authorities the deaths are a huge blow coming after the modifications to the fences made in the aftermath of two deaths in last year's race. Those changes were meant to make the race safer, yet depressingly the death toll of the Grand National continues. Part of the problem is that if you make fences less formidable, jockeys and horses tend to go faster - and there may be even more fallers.
So, what can be done to reduce the risks at the Grand National?
The fact is, no horse race can ever be made totally safe. While animal rights groups focus on the National and jump racing, we shouldn't forget that three horses died in the Dubai Gold Cup on the Flat last month.
The RSPCA, who don't want to see the race banned, but believe it can be made much safer, want to see Becher's Brook, the fence where more horses have been killed in the National than any other, levelled off on the landing side, to make it fairer to the horses. A second option is extra watering on the landing side of jumps, to cushion the blow to horses falling.
But there's another idea gaining ground. As Clare Balding has tweeted this morning, the number of runners in the race could be reduced: a cut from 40 to, say, 32 would give horses more space at the fences and more room to land safely, while maintaining the spectacle of the race.
It's worth noting that other races run over the National fences at Aintree's Becher chase meeting in late November/early December have an excellent safety record. That's not just because their distance is shorter, but because the fields are smaller and the ground is usually much softer than it is in April.
There is no escaping the sense that yesterday's race marked the end of an era. Channel 4 coverage, with its off-putting commercial breaks, will not compare to the uninterrupted BBC coverage on Grand National day. There is a real possibility that the race will slip in the public's affection in the same way that Morecambe and Wise struggled to get the same ratings for their Christmas show when they left the Beeb in the late 1970s.
This will, of course, be cause for celebration among those who would like to see the race banned. But for those of us who want the National to survive, who believe that it gives more than it takes away, a reduced field looks increasingly like the best way to cut the risks and save the National.