Drastic surgery needed to save the nation's favourite after deaths overshadow race
21:30 GMT, 15 April 2012
The British Horseracing Authority have promised a balanced and comprehensive review of the two horse deaths that scarred the John Smith’s Grand National for the second year running.
But when they have collated the statistics and reviewed the videos, the decisions they must take are to level out the drop on the landing side of fences, notably Becher’s Brook, and reduce the number of runners by up to a quarter.
Traditionalists will blanch at the prospect. Some will accuse me of betrayal of the sport on which I report, but after the deaths of Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised and According To Pete, drastic surgery is necessary.
Tragic: Gold Cup winner Sychronised fell during the Grand National and was later put down
The aftermath of Saturday’s race should have been celebration. After four-and-a-half miles and 30 jumps, the John Hales-owned Neptune Collonges, the first grey to win for 51 years, had beaten Sunnyhillboy by the thickness of a cigarette paper under an inspired ride from Daryl Jacob to secure the trainer’s championship for Paul Nicholls.
Back in third, Katie Walsh on Seabass had secured the best ever finish for a female jockey.
But memories of a race that fired my love of the sport are joyless. They are the grief of Synchronised’s trainer Jonjo O’Neill and the grim faces of his owner JP McManus and officials.
On the opening day of the meeting, I wrote about the significant changes undertaken since both Dooney’s Gate and Ornais lost their lives a year ago.
Fatality: According to Pete also died as questions were once again asked about the race's safety
They included beefed-up entry criteria to weed out potential risks as almost 250,000 was spent on a range of welfare measures.
Three fences were altered, including a
five-inch reduction of the drop on the landing side of Becher’s. /04/15/article-0-12987260000005DC-602_634x438.jpg” width=”634″ height=”438″ alt=”Neck and neck: Neptune Collonges (near) and Sunnyhillboy fought out a thrilling finish” class=”blkBorder” />
Neck and neck: Neptune Collonges (near) and Sunnyhillboy fought out a thrilling finish
Both deaths on Saturday were tragic
accidents. Synchronised fell at Becher’s Brook but galloped on riderless
and jumped five fences until the stumble that broke his hind leg.
According To Pete had jumped Becher’s Brook on the second circuit when
he cannoned into the prostrate On His Own and broke a foreleg.
The key objective for the BHA must be to
have fewer fallers. More runners on their feet is the safest option and
it would not detract from the spectacle.
It wouldn’t make the race risk-free but would establish firmer foundations for a defence against those hell bent on its destruction. And it would still be just as exciting if 18 or 20 runners out of a line-up reduced from 40 to 30 crossed the Melling Road with a chance. Most of us who remember the victory of Bobbyjo in 1999 do not reflect on it as a lesser contest — yet only 32 runners lined up.
Success story: Daryl Jacob on Neptune Collonges
More can be done at Aintree and not just because we are concerned with the cosmetic appearance of the sport that has wider implications for jump racing.
More than 70,000 spectators were at Aintree on Saturday and the same number will be there next year no matter what happens.
But we should want to make changes — want to build on the welfare successes that have been achieved.
I want to be proud of the sport’s biggest day, just as I was of one aspect on Saturday.
A jockey ban for excessive use of the whip for a second successive year would have added to the furore but Jacob and, particularly, Richie McLernon on the tiring runner-up Sunnyhillboy performed with admirable professionalism in pursuit of the prize.
Their actions showed how seriously the current crop of competitors take their responsibilities to their mounts and the historic prize, when it would have been easy for them to recklessly chase victory at all costs.
Aintree and the BHA have shown the same responsibility in the last year. Their decisions now must be brave and bold.