Close up on the Grand National

The first fence is big. In fact it is bigger than anything ever faced in a racehorse’s career; four and a half feet high and a stretch of well over six feet. It’s an almost solid wall of spruce. Jockeys and trainers claim it’s inviting to jump, but when ten horses have fallen at it in one go – that represents a quarter of the runners, including a previous race winner – then there is a major problem.

So, the scene is set straightaway, and if horses get beyond that first fence, there are 29 more to jump – many of them higher, wider and deadlier. Runners face unique problems at Liverpool’s Aintree racecourse, including the proximity of a large, noisy crowd; the number of animals taking part; and the nature of the fences. Most years there are fatalities.

An exceptionally large number of horses run in the race – 40. This prompts a cavalry charge at the start and a very fast pace. Bunching and bumping also occurs. Fallen horses regularly bring down others who then land on top of them.

Another racing casualty

Extreme race

The Grand National race is almost two circuits, covering a distance of four miles 856 yards – an extreme distance for a horse race. Most steeplechase races are under three miles, two furlongs. There are 16 unique fences, 14 of which are jumped twice. The Chair and the Water Jump are jumped only once, making a total of 30 jumps. Usually distance races at other courses contain no more than twenty smaller fences.

There is also a lack of consistency in the size and style of the obstacles. Most are very high and wide, and all are exceptionally stiff (a racing term stating that there is no give in them when a horse brushes through the top). Eleven jumps are over ditch fences. These are even stiffer and wider than the others, and there is an open gully on the landing side called a ditch. At Aintree there are real ditches filled with water at the Becher’s Brook and Valentine’s Brook fences.

A 90 degree turn is taken twice, with one fence – the Canal Turn – hiding from the horses’ view the immediate turn in the course. The run-in from the last fence is a gruelling 494 yards.

From its approach, the infamous Becher’s Brook looks similar to the previous fences, but the trick is on the landing side. It drops lower than the take-off side, so horses land at a steeper angle. What is more, the ground is at a slant that runs down into a ditch at the foot of the fence. Over the years many horses have met their deaths here and even though the fence has been made less arduous, fatalities still occur. 1999 saw the death of Eudip, rated one of the best horses around.

Whippingp>The Canal Turn is another killer. Roll-A-Joint was a brilliant jumper – he was a previous winner of the Scottish Grand National – yet he became another Grand National statistic when he broke his neck and was killed instantly at this badly positioned fence. His death was seen – as most are – on the BBC TV’s coverage of the race. As the horses ran once again around the course and jumped it for a second time, Roll-A-Joint’s dead body lay clearly seen – covered only by a large green sheet.

The extreme distance of the race takes its toll too. Ten-year-old Ballyhane jumped all the fences and passed the finishing post in 11th position. Exhausted, he slumped to the ground and died from a heart attack on his way back to the stables. Polly’s Pal, another victim of the race, died months later. His trainer said he never recovered from his exertions.

Support for the Grand National is immense. It’s big money, big people, and it’s the public’s big day for a flutter. It is attended by royalty, celebrities and leading politicians from all parties. It is also the epitome of animal abuse. The facts are there, documented in racing’s official publications, in press pictures and in the BBC Television recordings.