Seven Days: National Treasure or National Disgrace?

The headline to this piece is deliberately binary. That is, after all, what heated debates on social media or even more traditional media platforms, usually come down to: love or hate. And, let’s face it, in this clickbait age, that’s often deliberately so, to inflame the debate. The art of reasonable and nuanced argument is all but lost.

It was with wearying predictability in the countdown to Saturday’s Grand National that we witnessed the pink t-shirted protestors attempting to scale the perimeter fences of Aintree. A few glued themselves to fences in the manner that some of their cohort have been holding up traffic in London and the M25 over the years. It gains the perpetrators the desired but fleeting media coverage, perhaps a criminal record, but absolutely no sympathy for their cause. And what is the cause for those that descended on Aintree on Saturday? It certainly is not animal welfare.

Trainer Sandy Thomson, in an an understandably emotional outburst after the death of his runner Hill Sixteen (GB), believed that their actions contributed directly to a heightened atmosphere that had the field more on edge than usual. The following morning, in more measured fashion, Davy Russell, who fell at the first on Galvin (Ire), effectively reiterated this feeling when saying on Luck on Sunday, “I’m not sure that the people who protested yesterday realised the damage they were doing…the experience they were laying upon the horse was unnecessary, and the experience they were laying on the trainers and the jockeys.”

It is hard to disagree with two men whose lives have been hewn from their experience of working with Thoroughbreds. And one only had to listen to the various members of Animal Rising who were given airtime on television screens in Britain in the build-up to the Grand National to realise that this is a woefully ill-informed organisation when it comes to horse racing. So where do we go from here?

It is clear that the Grand National will have to undergo further modifications, most likely this time in the reduction of the field size and perhaps a shortened run to the first fence. Reducing the field from 40 had been dismissed by horsemen in a previous review of the race, which, between 2013 and 2021, after the new fences had been introduced, saw the fatality rate reduced to 1.12%, compared to 2.8% between 1993 and 2003. To put that into context, the overall fatality rate in British horse racing is 0.21% from around 90,000 runners. In jump racing alone that figure is 0.43%.

Clearly, the £40 million spent by British racing on veterinary research over the last 20 years, along with regular reviews and liaison with the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare, is having some effect. Equally clearly, though, is that it will never be enough for those protesting against the Grand National who won’t be satisfied until it (and horse racing in general) is banned.

While racing can field well informed commentators of the ilk of Kevin Blake and Richard Hoiles to speak on television and radio channels, their intelligent reasoning is set alongside those allowed to spout half-truths and lies. No amount of fact sheets from the racing industry will ever change the minds of those who are intent on not giving an inch. And no matter how many positive tweets of happy horses we post, we cannot hide from the fact that a very small number of horses will die when racing, on the Flat and over jumps. That, in a world increasingly at odds with the realities of encountering animals on a regular basis, is hard for many people to accept.

Without the Grand National I wouldn’t be working in racing. Unless you’re born into a racing family, the chances are there will have been a grandfather who loved a bet, or a family trip to the races that sparked a passion for the sport that at times, certainly in the case of this writer, can border on obsession. I was lucky to be alive for the golden era of Red Rum, when his fame was such that he transcended the sports pages and encouraged pony-mad children to take an interest in racing.

The Grand National of Red Rum’s days is almost unrecognisable in comparison to today. Though some within the sport had rued the changes made following a major safety review, when those changes kicked in with no fatalities for the first six years, it seemed that we were going the right way. We are, mostly, but the most telling factor following this year’s race is how many people who love racing were publicly stating that they turned away from the race. 

It was indeed hard and unpleasant to watch: a complete debacle from the start, rather than a display of sporting prowess. How much of that can be attributed to the delay and subsequent rushed start is hard to say. A personal view is that the protestors and the organisers must take equal blame for each of those deeply undesirable situations. 

In Britain, horse racing is beset with problems, from a lack of prize-money to threats from a government gambling review (the two not unrelated) and it would be easy to feel that what amounts to a few hundred protesters is the least of our worries, but it is not.

When racing dominates the Sunday papers and a British race reaches the news channels as far afield as Australia for all the wrong reasons, it is time to look again at how we can seek to ensure that the pendulum between the Grand National being our most famous horse race and also one of the biggest threats to the sport’s future swings in our favour. Reducing the field to 30 runners or fewer would be a start.

In Praise of Davy Russell

With apologies for this week’s epistle being dominated by the theme of jump racing, one further note is required on the retirement of Davy Russell. Though he did not bow out, as Sam Waley-Cohen did last year, with victory in the Grand National, Russell did notch two further Grade 1 victories at Aintree last week to bring the curtain down on a glorious career in some style.

Russell is not just one of the finest jump jockeys of his era, but also one of the sport’s most sensible voices. His loss from the front line will be immense, as few jockeys speak in such an informative manner while maintaining a deep sense of modesty. 

Two memories of Russell speak to his decency beyond his talent in the saddle. In the 2011 Grand National, when he had parted company with Beacuseicouldntsee at the second fence and Jason Maguire had crossed the line in triumph aboard Ballabriggs, it wasn’t Maguire to be found throwing buckets of water over the winning horse in the aftermath but Russell, who had obviously noted that the horse required attention while many of those around him were celebrating.

Furthermore, at an ITBA seminar some years ago, Russell made an impassioned plea from the back of the room during a debate on the expansion of the National Hunt race programme for mares. As always, he was measured in his view while urging for a situation similar to what has indeed transpired in the intervening years.

Sensible man, great jockey. Godspeed, Davy Russell, but don’t be a stranger. Racing needs you.

Classics Ahoy!

While the picture for the French Classics grew ever more intriguing with some doughty performances from Blue Rose Cen (Fr) (Churchill {Ire}), American Flag (Fr) (Wootton Bassett {GB}) and Flight Leader (GB) (Frankel {GB}) in Longchamp’s muddy trials on Sunday, the round of British trials gets underway this week at Newmarket and Newbury.

The ball is already rolling in Japan, where the win of Liberty Island (Jpn) (Duramente Jpn}) in the GI Oka Sho (1,000 Guineas) was followed on Sunday with success for Sol Oriens (Jpn) (Kitasan Black {Jpn}) in the GI Satsuki Sho (2,000 Guineas). I’ve learned to my cost to double-check that last name after I type it, as my computer has an irritating habit of auto-correcting Satsuki to satsuma.

The JRA Horse of the Year in 2016 and 2017, Kitasan Black has already been lauded as the sire of Equinox (Jpn) and, as a Japanese St Leger winner, is flying the flag for all those stallions here who win over a similar distance and are consigned immediately to the jumps ranks. In fact, when you look at the pedigree of Sol Oriens, it makes a convincing argument for middle-distance class and guarantees that, if he is good enough, he will certainly see out the next two legs of the Japanese Triple Crown. As well as having a Leger-winning sire, his first two dams are by the Derby winners Motivator (GB) and Quest For Fame (GB).

There is a linking theme between Saturday’s Grand National winner Corach Rambler (Ire) and Sunday’s Satsuki Sho winner Sol Oriens, and that is Wind In Her Hair (Ire) (Alzao). The great mare, who lives in retirement at Northern Horse Park at the age of 32, appears in the third generation of both horses through her son Deep Impact (Jpn), grandsire of Sol Oriens, and her daughter Glint In Her Eye (Arazi), who is the dam of Corach Rambler’s late sire Jeremy. The latter, a son of Danehill Dancer (Ire), won the G3 Jersey S. and G2 Celebration Mile for American owner Betty Moran, who tasted Grand National success of her own with the Ted Walsh-trained Papillon (Ire) in 2000.

Craven meeting 

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