Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Three Horses Die During England's Grand National 2011

All sports are dangerous to some extent. Equestrian sports are more dangerous than most, both to the rider and to the horse. Occasionally, riders and horses die. This is sad, but true. But consider, the rider chooses to compete. The horse has no choice in the matter. It is up to the riders and others involved in the sport to make it as safe as possible for the horses while still maintaining the spirit of the event. Of course, the only way to completely prevent the death of horses in equestrian events is to completely stop equestrian events. That seems a bit extreme. However, when an event has proven to be excessively dangerous to horses, it needs to be changed or stopped.

Over the past 11 years, 33 horses have died competing in England's Grand National which is held at Aintree Race Course, one of the most famously brutal racing tracks in the world. Surprisingly, there has been only one recorded human fatality in the event's history (Joe Wynne in 1862), though that may change if jockey Peter Toole, who was critically injured this year, fails to recover. The final race, John Smith's Grand National Chase, is four and a half miles long and the horses are supposed to jump all but two of Aintree's 16 steeplechase jumps twice, making for 30 jumps total. (Aintree Course guide) During this year's Grand National, which ran from April 7 – 9, 2011, three horses died. Two of the three died in the final race.

Below is a list of the horses that have died during or because of injuries sustained during the three days of the Grand National each of the past 11 years:

2000 – Strong Promise, Rossell Island, Architect, Lake Kariba and Toni's Tip
2001 – Outback Way
2002 – Last Fling, Manx Magic, Desert Mountain and Anubis Quercus
2003 – Goguenard and Coolnagorna
2004 – no deaths
2005 – Lilium de Cotte
2006 – Terivic and Tyneandthyneagain
2007 – Lord Rodney, Into the Shadows and Graphic Approach
2008 – Time to Sell, The High Grass and McKelvey
2009 – Hear the Echo, Exotic Dancer, Mel In Blue, Moscow Catch and Lilla Sophia
2010 – Pagan Starprincess, Prudent Honour, Plaisir D'Estraval and Schindlers Hunt
2011 – Ornais, Dooneys Gate and Inventor

That's an average of 3 fatalities a year. With only one year with no fatalities. That certainly seems like the event is excessively dangerous to horses.

Generally, fewer than half of those who compete in the John Smith's Grand National even make it to the finish line. The record for the most horses to finish the race was 23 in 1984. In 1929, only 2 horses were able to complete the course. In this year's race, out of 40 horses who started the event, 19 completed it. Ten horses fell, of which two died, two more were tripped by fallen horses, four unseated their riders and five were pulled up for various reasons. The fact that consistently less than half the horses who start the race even finish it, is yet another reason to re-examine the way this particular race is run.

Admittedly, some changes have been made to try and make the Grand National safer. The drops on the landing side of some jumps have been reduced. However, even though the brook at the infamous Becher's Brook fence was filled in, it is still a 4' 10” jump from the front with a 6' 9” drop on the back. In 2009, a bypass area was created around certain jumps, including the infamous Becher's Brook. Two of these bypass areas had to be used this year in order to avoid running over the dead horses still lying beside the jumps after the first circuit of the track.

Strangely, veteran trainer, Ginger McCain, who won the Grand National race three times with horse Red Rum, blames the safety improvements for causing the deaths of the horses. "It’s getting quicker and it’s speed that does it… They’ve taken the drops out for the do-gooders and it has encouraged the horses to go quicker. It is speed that kills." Considering the winner of the race, Jason Maguire riding Ballabriggs, was given a five day ban for excessive use of his whip, I don't think it's the do-gooders who are making the horses go quicker. (Maguire has been banned for excessive whip use before, and at least one ban was recently overturned in order to allow him to race.)

Also, if you actually look at the race times over the past 11 years and more, the race times have NOT consistently gone down. Although this years winning time of 9min 1.2sec is the second fastest recorded time following the record set in 1990 of 8min 47.8sec(According to most articles, that is. It looks to me like it's the third fastest time, since Rough Quest finished in 9min 0.8sec in 1996. Anyway...), winning times over the past years have varied upwards and downwards with no consistent pattern. And if you look at winning time vs number of fatalities, there is no correlation between speed of the race and number of deaths. In the past 11 years, the only year (2004) with no deaths had a winning time of 9min 20.3sec and the year(2009) with the most horse deaths (5) had a winning time of 9min 32.9sec. The changes made to the course have not made it noticeably faster. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have made it any safer either.

The race is simply too grueling. Even horses that don't die from falls, sometimes collapse from being pushed too hard. After winning this years race, Ballabriggs was considered too exhausted to enter the winner's circle and had to be given oxygen to help him recover. In fact, three out of the first four horses to finish had to be immediately treated for exhaustion and were unable to appear in the winner's enclosure. Fortunately, they all seem to have recovered. Unlike other horses which have died of heart attacks during or immediately after the races. Somehow, I don't think those horses have willingly run themselves to death.

However, some participants claim to believe that the horses enjoy the race. Donald McCain, son of Ginger McCain, and trainer of Ballabriggs, is quoted as saying,”If it [the horse] does not want to jump at Aintree, he won't jump.” According to that logic, ill-trained, ill-tempered, nonathletic horses who refuse jumps or dump their rider, are simply expressing their belief that equestrian sports are inherently too dangerous for them to participate in. And well-trained, willing, athletic horses who behave properly, apparently understand the danger and have consented to risk their lives in the name of spectacle. I find that type of “logic” hard to believe.

Horses, although extraordinary animals, are not capable of understanding the danger of certain equestrian sports and cannot choose for themselves whether that danger is acceptable. It is up to those of us who truly care for the well-being of horses to mitigate the risks of racing and other horse sports. Admittedly, there is no way to remove all risk from equestrian sports, but when an event such as the Grand National has proven to be excessively dangerous for horses, something needs to be done.

The question is... what is excessively dangerous? Well, for comparison, the Omak Stampede and World Famous Suicide Race, which openly claims to be the most dangerous horse race in the world, had 15 officially recorded horse fatalities during the actual race between 1984 and 2006. Unfortunately, there is no official record of how many horses died or had to be put down after the race because of injuries sustained during the race. Unofficially, it is reported that apx 21 horses have died because of the race during the past 26 years. Even using the higher unofficial count, that's less than one horse fatality per year, compared to the Grand National's 33 horse fatalities in the past 11 years which averages out to 3 horse fatalities per year. I am not saying that I approve of the Omak Suicide Race, I very definitely do not. But compared to England's Grand National, it appears to be less dangerous for the horses forced to compete.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Omak Suicide Race. It is a race consisting of a galloping start leading quickly to a plunge down a 62 degree dirt slope that's 225 feet long and narrows as it goes down. The slope drops into a 100 yard wide river that the horse must swim across and then climb up a more gradual incline to a 500 yard sprint to the finish line. This race is run by the same horse three days in a row. The first two runs are done in the dark of night. It is considered by many to be an appalling abuse of horses simply for commercial gain. It is NOT as some people have claimed, a traditional rite of passage for Native American tribesmen. It was created by a local businessman purely as a financial endeavor. Local tribes agreed to participate in order to receive part of the profits. The United States Humane Society published a video denouncing the race in 2006.

The Omak Suicide Race is a fairly small and relatively unknown event compared to England's Grand National, but it has been widely denounced in the US and in other countries. The final race of the Grand National is one of the biggest and most popular races in the world. It is major national event in England. This year's live televised broadcast of the final race was seen by 8.8 million viewers on BBC 1 during the 15 minutes between 4:15 and 4:30pm alone. The estimated worldwide audience for footage of the John Smith's Grand National Chase is apx 600 million people in 140 countries. How can something that is so well-known and widely watched be allowed to continue to be so excessively dangerous to horses? Yes, there has been and continues to be some public outcry against the deaths of horses for public entertainment. But very little has actually been done. And what little has been done, has not improved the survival rate of the horses made to compete.

I would not have been surprised to have discovered such a brutal race being celebrated in a third world country where animal welfare is not much of a concern. But frankly I was shocked to discover that such a deadly race is not only allowed to continue, but is celebrated as part of the national culture of England.

Links for information about England's Grand National:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1375210/Grand-National-2011-Ballabriggs-wins-day-drama-Aintree.html (Warning: Graphic pictures)

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1375569/Grand-National-2011-Do-gooders-safety-row-jockey-lies-coma-horses-die.html (Warning: Graphic pictures)

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/racing/article-1375310/Grand-National-2011-Aintree-day-horror-millions-2-horses-die.html?ito=feeds-newsxml (Warning: Graphic pictures)










http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/apr/10/grand-national-bullfighting-deaths (Warning: Graphic picture)




Aintree course guide: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sol/shared/spl/hi/horse_racing/05/grandnational/html/default.stm

1967 video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0n--QhZQgI

2011 video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GllKThibSLo

Links for information about the Omak Suicide Race:







Humane Society video about the Omak Suicide Race: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4pig67unHo

Another blogger comparing England's Grand National to the Omak Suicide Race


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