Running for their lives – The Grand National

In the second section of this special Animal Aid report – Running for their Lives – we take a look at the Grand National itself.

No British course arouses such passion or controversy as Aintree in Merseyside – home of the Grand National three-day spring meet. Its reputation for frequently lethal spills is well-deserved, with five horses dying during the 2000 event.

Four dead on one day

On the opening day alone, four horses were killed – the worst death toll for a single day’s racing anywhere in Britain for 10 years. And yet the total number of fatalities over the three days was in keeping with previous years. In 1999, four horses died, the year before, five.

Despite official murmurings of shock at such carnage – and any number of inquiries and adjustments to jumps – Aintree’s two courses are designed to be deliberately punishing. Their purpose is to present a white-knuckle entertainment for a public which has learnt to associate the National course in particular with the ‘thrilling spectacle’ of horses crashing to the ground.

Aintree’s Mildmay course is less well known than the National, but it is a formidably sharp, fast track with stiff fences. Last year it claimed the lives of what experts considered two of the most experienced and talented jumpers in the world: Strong Promise and Lake Kariba.

Gold Cup runner-up Strong Promise died from spinal injuries in a horrific fall at the sixth fence from home during the 2.35 Martell Cup Chase. A nine year old renowned for his peerless ability to gallop and jump, the stiffness of the fourteenth fence brought Strong Promise to his knees. He turned over on landing and broke his neck. The life could be seen draining from him as he lay helpless on the ground, his legs kicking out uncontrollably.

In the same race, Lake Kariba could be seen running while clearly distressed. He finished totally exhausted, in third place. Minutes later, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.

The third victim claimed by the Mildmay course at the 2000 Grand National meet was Architect, one of the best young hurdlers in Britain. He was running in the 4.20 Glenlivet Anniversary four year-olds’ Novices Hurdle race, moving at around 30 miles per hour, when he toppled over the penultimate fence and irreparably damaged his spine.

Liverpool vet John Burgess put a .320 calibre pistol to the four-year-old’s forehead, ripping a bullet through his brain and spinal cord. The gun’s silencer produced no more than a muffled bang from behind green screens put up around the dying animal in order to shield the thousands of punters from the consequences of their ‘harmless flutter’. Many were already piling on bets for the next race.

The more famous National course claimed two of the five Aintree victims of last year. In the 3.45 Martell Fox Hunters’ Chase on Thursday April 6, Rossell Island fell during a multiple pile-up at the first fence and suffered catastrophic spinal injuries. Toni’s Tip endured an almost identical fate at the same fence the following day during the John Hughes Chase.

‘A statistical blip’

‘It was just one of those things,’ according to Ferdy Murphy, the horse’s trainer. (Independent, April 8) ‘He just made a slight mistake and went to save himself.’

After the first four deaths – and before any inquiry into the causes – Aintree adopted a rigidly defensive posture. Managing director Charles Barnett was quoted as saying:

‘I can’t accept that the course is to blame. It wasn’t as though they all died at one fence.’

(The Sun, April 7, 2000)

Peter Webbon, the Jockey Club’s chief veterinary adviser, described the day’s events as ‘a statistical blip.’ (The Sun, April 7, 2000) Other comments from Webbon suggested that he was unaware that it was the horses rather than the men who rode them who had been the casualties in an event in which they had no choice but to take part. Said Webbon:

‘One in six people who climb Everest are killed doing so and this is the Everest of horse racing… The reason we have evolved into the people we are, the reason we put a man on the moon and wrote wonderful music, is that people were prepared to take risks. If we didn’t we’d get nowhere and we’d all still be living in caves.’

(Independent April 7, 2000)

The RSPCA’s David Muir also came to the defence of the race organisers:

‘I don’t know what else the management could have done.’

(The Sun, April 7, 2000)

16,000 racegoers and millions of television viewers witnessed the Aintree deaths. The BBC – which paid an amount for broadcasting rights it refuses to divulge – excused the deaths with comments such as:

‘its sad… but they had a great life up to the point of death!’

BBC presenter irritated by dead

One of the presenters, Clare Balding, daughter of the racehorse trainer Ian Balding, was particularly irritated by the public outcry caused by the horse fatalities:

‘It’s just so draining to be saying on air: “Four horses have been killed”, as I had to on Thursday’, she told the Daily Telegraph (April 10).

‘I just thought: “Oh, God, why do I have to keep saying this.” I just got the impression on Thursday and Friday that had a jockey been killed, there wouldn’t have been the headlines that there were for five horses being killed.’


The point Balding missed, like chief vet Webbon, was that horses are pressed into racing – they have no choice but to risk life and limb for the pleasure and profit of others.

The public cares

BBC Radio did indeed receive a stream of calls from outraged listeners and a television opinion poll resulted in a heavy majority concluding that the National should be banned. (The Times April 8, 2000)

In an attempt to dilute public anger the BBC axed a 30 second special effects trailer for the Grand National, which showed a horse narrowly escaping different kinds of gruesome death at different fences.

The Grand National itself – run by a top-limit field of 40 horses – passed without any fatalities.

In the third section of Running for their Lives we take a look at the statistics.