The death of four horses at the recent Cheltenham Festival has brought equine safety back into the British public’s consciousness just in time for the most perilous jumps meeting of them all.
The three-day Aintree Festival, headlined by the 4½-mile (7,200-meter) slog that is the Grand National Steeplechase, begins on Thursday with as much focus on whether horses get round the grueling course in northern England in one piece as on who wins the races.
Twenty-one horses have died over the feared Grand National fences since 2001. The number of fatalities is on the slide, according to the British Horseracing Authority, which has modified the course in recent years in the face of stinging criticism. But for some, the changes can’t go far enough.
“We look forward to the day when it will be consigned to the history books,” Animal Aid campaigner Fiona Pereira said of the Grand National.
Animal Aid claims the race has been “five times more dangerous for horses than other jumps races” based on figures from 1987 and 2013. The BHA points to figures that show the National has been three times more dangerous than other jumps races over the last 10 years.
Authorities and lovers of horse racing can find themselves in a difficult place during the Aintree meeting, which will be attended by an expected 150,000 people.
For the Grand National on Saturday, Britain can come to a standstill. An estimated 600 million people typically watch the race on TV around the world and organizers say more people bet on the National than any other racing event by some distance.
It means, however, there is no place to hide when tragedy strikes - as so often has happened over the past decade.
Two horses died in the 2011 and ‘12 races. The 2013 National passed controversy-free - all 40 runners returned unscathed - but two horses died across the festival. And with four horses dying at Cheltenham last month, it remains a hot topic.
The BHA says it has invested more than 1.5 million pounds ($2.5 million) in safety and welfare measures since 2009 and has “left no stone unturned in seeking to reduce risk to both horse and rider whilst maintaining the Grand National’s unique character.”
“The evidence shows that races over the Grand National course are becoming safer,” the BHA said in an e-mail to The Associated Press, “reflecting the measures that have been implemented to raise welfare standards. In races run over the Grand National course, including the Grand National itself, the average injury and fatality rate over the last 10 years has decreased compared to that over the last 20 years.”
Modifications for the 2013 meeting included restyling fences - removing wooden stakes and replacing them with a more forgiving plastic material - moving the start forward and away from the grandstands to create a calmer environment, and levelling the landing side of some fences, including the fearsome Becher’s Brook.
There have been no more changes in the past 12 months, despite many calling for the 40-horse field to be decreased to reduce the carnage seen at some fences as horses get in each others’ way.
“Reviews have provided no evidence to suggest that a reduced field size would reduce the risk of injury to horse or rider,” the BHA says.
The Grand National has prize money of 1 million pounds ($1.66 million) for the first time this year owing to a new sponsor. Bookmakers will be hoping for a repeat of last year, when a 66-1 shot - Auroras Encore - romped to a nine-length win in one of the race’s biggest shocks.