How to save the National after tragic death of Synchronised

Apr 15, 2012
Neil Clark

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.

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We need to breed horses with better, denser bone so that their limbs do not shatter so easily. For decades we have been sacrificing decent bone for the sake of speed, both in flat and jump horses. This has got to change.

I also agree with comments about reducing the size of the national field and slowing the pace of the race. Yesterday's hopelessly amateurish start didn't help.

We also need to remember that what happened yesterday to tow horses happens, less public ally, every week to racehorses - and it should not.

I am a rider with connections to the industry and I know what I am talking about.


The difference with this tragedy with Synchronised is that, as has been noted above, the horse had definitely indicated strongly that he did not wish to be there. This was a Gold Cup winner, afterall, that had dumped his jockey and then looked away at the first fence. He clearly did not have the enthusiasm for the task that he had normally shown.  His owner, trainer and jockey need to ask themselves why the raced him at that point.  There's always another day another race, but there won't be another Synchronised. 

It's time this competition was shelved. I find it really upsetting that animals die for the amusement of humans. I know horses love to run, but agree with the comment regarding if the animal has shown a disdain for the task, then why push. Absolutely horrific that he should end up being destroyed. THere ought to be prosecution and fining in place for both those who push horses to race and for the racecourse owners/runners who have such a otorious jump. Over the years how many have died as a result of injuries at Bechers Brook. Obviously the modifications made this time were still inadequate. Tragic and unnecessary. In my opinion it borders on cruelty.

through any part of the British countryside and you will sooner or later see a horse
in a field. It is such a normal sight that you might barely notice how that
horse is contained, why it does not simply break out. Look more closely and you
will notice that the fencing around that field is probably about four feet high
and made of posts and rails, virtually all space, with a few pieces of wood
creating no more than a token barrier between the animal and its escape.

hundreds of thousands of years the natural environment for a horse has been the
open grassland. They are herd animals. In the French Camargue, they graze the lush
wetlands, in Australia wild Brumbies roam the open bush, in America Mustangs range
across the plains and all choose the broad expanse of open territory that
permits them to flee their predators unimpaired by walls or hedges. The
evolutionary truth of the horse is that it prefers not to jump, unless its life
is in danger and no easier alternative presents itself.

mankind first realised this, the horse’s fate was sealed. The first corral
builder must have been hailed a hero by his Mesolithic tribe. By the simple
means of a few branches lashed together he had ensured for his people a steady
supply of food and later transport and with a few refinements to the height and
strength of his prototype enclosure, even the most agile of these captive animals
could be contained, even in their panic. But along with this newfound
achievement dawns the understanding that while almost anything can make a horse
run, only man can make it jump. The thrilling sensation of watching an already
beautiful creature fill its muscles, stretch every sinew and leap clear of its
confinement cannot have been long behind.

the long intervening years mankind’s love affair with the horse has grown. We
have become infatuated with their tranquil beauty, their inimitable power,
their exquisite grace and their overwhelming strength. But we have admired and
abused them in equal measure. We have overburdened them in our service, made
them die in our wars and now we exploit them for our thrills and entertainment.

seven years I lived within walking distance of Prestbury Park racecourse near
Cheltenham: no accidental pilgrimage for me, a pony club boy from the age of
six, a competitive teenage rider in three day events and show jumping and an
avid hunter throughout. In my family the Easter Monday point-to-point was as
sacred an event as the Holy Day itself and in time I was old enough to help
with the local stables own horses as they prepared to race. Horses were in my hands,
my blood, my nostrils for many, many years.

when living in Cheltenham I took every opportunity to join the eager throng and
go racing. Through the haze of the night before I would make it up the hill to
the course for the New Year’s day meeting to celebrate the turn of the ages
with my fellow horse lovers. The favourite photo I have ever taken is of that
course, at sunset as the thinning crowds watch the finish of the last race of a
grey and wintry card. Most memorably, I forced my way through the rapacious
hoards to the finish just in time to see Kauto cross the line by a short head
to win his second Gold Cup.

yesterday, Grand National Day, I had an epiphany. We have forgotten the nature
of the horse. We have given in to the awe of what we can make them do. We have
made performance and spectacle the guiding light of our relationship with this
beautiful, nervous, elegant beast. We have refined them to a point where they
suit only our desires and we are denying them their nature. All those years ago
we spotted one single quality of their behaviour in duress and we have
cultivated and valued that beyond all proportion and beyond all respect for
what they really are. We school them to make them jump and we whip them to make
them run. We have taken their fear and forced them to perform to the peak of it.
And as a consequence, we are allowing them to die for our entertainment.

post races analysis of the 2012 Grand National read like a village role call in
1918. What other sporting event would we watch twice where only fifteen out of
the forty members of the team survived to complete the game? In what other
would we allow the collateral statistics to include the death of two major
stars? Would we shrug and accept this as acceptable risk in any other realm of

know the thrill of the chase. I know the joy of participation through the
bookies. I can guess at an owner’s jubilation in the triumph of the win. But I
cannot any longer accept the price of that exhilaration.

do not ban boxing when a fighter dies or football when a player collapses on
the pitch or rugby when a tackle ends a career. These participants make their
choices. No horse ever chose to race over the sticks without the driving of
mankind. No horse is ‘asked’ to face the fatal obstacles of a steeplechase. We
have bred them to comply with our own perceptions of safety when they in their
nature only ever run from the perception of their own insecurity.

through all of the emotional and emotive arguments and I will bet you that the
word economy will appear. The millions of pounds that flow through racing, the
further millions that flood the high street bookies, the employment of hundreds
of thousands of people worldwide, the construction and manning of venues across
the globe, all these become the ultimate reasons for maintaining the ‘sport’ of

what would happen without jump racing? It is simple. In the short term there
would be a sad vacuum, filled only by ex-steeplechasers and downcast grooms,
but in the long term, the punters would migrate to the flat, the lads and
lasses would find work in the increasing number of flat racing stables, the
owners would glide easily across and the horses would live and compete in ways
more natural to their heredity. The economy would survive.

happens in the future, all of us who feel the grief of this year’s race must share
in the blame. We must learn once again to respect the life of the horse and do
what we can to preserve it. 

Synchronised wasn't fatally injured as a direct result of Becher's Brook (fence 6) - after taking a relatively "soft" fall there, he continued riderless until injuring himself trying to jump fence 11. So stop blaming Becher's Brook and recognise the fact that he was "enthusiastic" enough to continue running and jumping without his jockey. That kinda destroys your argument, doesn't it?

I'm deeply upset about the deaths of both horses but having 11 of my own, I know very well that if a horse doesn't want to run, or to jump, you can't make him (or her) into a successful racehorse/jumper.

As seen in Saturday's race at least one horse refused to tackle a fence he thought beyond him, and yet riderless horses - who could easily have run out, as several did - continued the race with their ears forward and clearly enjoying themselves.

I realise the two horses put down didn't die outright, but they died very quickly, before they would have suffered since endorphins and adrenalin would have blocked pain, doing something they loved doing. I wish I could say the same of most humans.