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Drastic surgery needed to save the nation"s favourite

Drastic surgery needed to save the nation's favourite after deaths overshadow race

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UPDATED:

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

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

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

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.

Grand National 2012 winner Neptune hailed king of Aintree but death of Synchronised casts shadow

Neptune hailed king of Aintree but death of Gold Cup hero Synchronised casts shadow

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UPDATED:

10:05 GMT, 15 April 2012

Neptune Collonges became the first
grey to win the Grand National for more than half a century with a late,
late charge that mugged Sunnyhillboy in the very last stride.

A race of extraordinary tension also
saw 27-year-old Katie Walsh and Seabass go tantalisingly close to
delivering a result to match the old Hollywood version that saw Liz
Taylor ride to victory on National Velvet. They eventually finished
third.

On the bob: Neptune Collonges pips Sunnyhilboy on the line

On the bob: Neptune Collonges pips Sunnyhilboy on the line

National pride: Daryl Jacob (left), trainer Paul Nicholls (centre right) and owner John Hales (second left) celebrate with Neptune Collonges

National pride: Daryl Jacob (left), trainer Paul Nicholls (centre right) and owner John Hales (second left) celebrate with Neptune Collonges

GRAND NATIONAL 2012 RESULT

1 Neptune Collonges (D A Jacob) 33-1

2 Sunnyhillboy (R P McLernon) 16-1

3 Seabass (Ms K Walsh) 8-1 Jt Fav

4 Cappa Bleu (Paul Moloney) 16-1

40 ran

Also: 8-1 Jt Fav Shakalakaboomboom

Tote: win 47.80 places 9.00 6.40 2.60 4.60 Tote Exacta: 737.20 CSF: 448.28 Tricast: 4657.68

Others

5th In Compliance

6th Ballabriggs

7th Hello Bud

8th Tharawaat

9th Shakalakaboomboom

10th Swing Bill

11th The Midnight Club

12th Planet Of Sound

13th Neptune Equester

14th Calgary Bay

15th Midnight Haze

Fence 1: Viking Blond (fell)

Fence 2: West End Rocker (fell), Junior (fell)

Fence 5: State Of Play (unseated), Rare Bob (brought down), Chicago Grey (brought down)

Fence 6: Synchronised (fell)

Fence 7: Alfa Beat (fell)

Fence 8: Black Apalachi (fell), Organisedconfusion (unseated), Becauseicouldntsee (unseated), Tatenen (unseated), Killyglen (unseated)

Fence 10: Treacle (fell), Arbor Supreme (unseated)

Fence 11: Giles Cross (pulled up)

Fence 15: Always Right (unseated)

Fence 17: Quiscover Fontaine (fell)

Fence 19: Deep Purple (pulled up), Vic Venturi (refused)

Fence 21: fence omitted

Fence 22: On His Own (fell), According To Pete (brought down), Mon Mome (pulled up), Postmaster (pulled up)

Fence 27: Weird Al (fell)

Yet, for all the excitement of the closest finish the Aintree race has known – victory by a nose – there was also despair.

Two horses died, including last
month's Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised, despite major safety
changes to key fences in an attempt to make the challenge less daunting.

Old timers will tell you that the
current, well-cushioned National fences are a huge improvement on the
stark, upright obstacles that used to wreak havoc in days when there
were as many as 60 starters.

But the casualty list again made grim
reading as news filtered through that Synchronised and According To
Pete had both been put down after falls at Becher's Brook, where the
landing side had been levelled since last year.

Two more horses, Killyglen and Weird
Al, were last night under the supervision of vets. Synchronised
scrambled to his feet but was found to have broken a hind leg after
jumping five more fences riderless.

Leading jockey Noel Fehilly was also in the wars after breaking his leg when State of Play departed at an early fence.

The accidents brought an immediate response from Professor Tim Morris, the senior vet at the British Racing Authority.

He said: 'We are very sad about the fatal injuries suffered by both horses. In each case the humane option was to put them down.

'The Grand National undoubtedly
represents a challenge to horse and rider. It has inherent risks, but,
working closely with Aintree and other stakeholders, we do all we can to
minimise the risk while maintaining the unique character of the race.

'We will examine closely the
circumstances which led to both incidents. Each year Aintree and the BHA
review all incidents which occur at this meeting and consider what
measures can be taken to address the risk of a repeat in the future. The
BHA takes its responsibility of looking after the welfare of horse and
rider very seriously.'

The bad news for racing is that in
this age of ever-increasing measures for health and safety, this latest
setback is bound to spark renewed calls for the National to end.

The millions of TV viewers who love
steeplechasing must hope that those in charge of its destiny hold their
nerve in testing times.

Saturday's John Smith's Grand National again drew a massive crowd.

The race has long been part of our
sporting heritage, delivering a series of astonishing results in modern
times from Red Rum's unique third triumph in 1977 and Bob Champion's
heart-warming journey from a cancer ward to the winner's enclosure on
Aldaniti in 1981.

Over the last: Neptune Collonges ridden by Daryl Jacob (back right in yellow) has plenty of ground to make up

Over the last: Neptune Collonges ridden by Daryl Jacob (back right in yellow) has plenty of ground to make up

The truth is that life is not a
risk-free zone, nor should it be. The National has long been an easy
target for protesters yet three horses died a fortnight ago in one
evening at the Dubai World Cup on the flat.

The debate will run for weeks, but the National, first run in 1836, must be allowed to survive.

Nailed: Neptune Collonges (left) touches off Sunnyhillboy (right)

Nailed: Neptune Collonges (left) touches off Sunnyhillboy (right)

'Just listen to the response of John Hales, the jubilant owner of Neptune Collonges.

'My wife is in tears and my daughter is overcome with emotion and so am I,' he said.

'After losing One Man here a few years ago, the course owed me one.'

Winning jockey Daryl Jacob added: 'I will treasure this day for the rest of my life.

'I didn't know where the winning post was so just kept on riding for all I was worth. This horse has a heart of gold.'

Grey day: Neptune Collonges and Daryl Jacob celebrate their National success

Grey day: Neptune Collonges and Daryl Jacob celebrate their National success

It was a triumph of perseverance for
champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who privately despaired of ever winning
this famous old steeplechase after a catalogue of disappointments
stretching back to 1992.

This was his 53rd runner.

Thrills and spills: James Reveley falls from Always Right at The Chair

Thrills and spills: James Reveley falls from Always Right at The Chair

Thrill of the chase: Neptune Collonges (4) and Sunnyhillboy (26) jump The Chair

Thrill of the chase: Neptune Collonges (4) and Sunnyhillboy (26) jump The Chair

'Nicholls and his
daughter, Megan, were in tears as they waited for the verdict from the
closest of photo finishes. Their triumph in a race offering almost
1million sealed Nicholls' seventh consecutive trainer's title after a
fierce duel with his friend and rival Nicky Henderson.

Nicholls later
revealed that 11-year-old Neptune Collonges, a 33-1 shot and the first
grey to win the race since Nicolaus Silver in 1961, would retire.

Classy performer: Neptune Collonges and Daryl Jacobs (left) beat Sunnyhillboy on the line

Classy performer: Neptune Collonges and Daryl Jacobs (left) beat Sunnyhillboy on the line

Final race: Neptune Collonges clers Becher's but According To Pete brings down On His Own

Final race: Neptune Collonges clers Becher's but According To Pete brings down On His Own

In
finishing a superb third on Seabass, Katie Walsh gave notice that it is
only a matter of time before a female rider triumphs in the race.

She
said 'The horse gave me an unbelievable spin and it was a fantastic
experience. I just want to go out and do it all over again.'

Grey's day: Daryl Jacob and Neptune Collonges fly the water jump

Grey's day: Daryl Jacob and Neptune Collonges fly the water jump

Her father,
Ted Walsh, added: 'I'm really proud of horse and rider. It was a good
National and great to be part of it.'

Fatal fall: AP McCoy and Synchronised come to grief at Becher's

Fatal fall: AP McCoy and Synchronised come to grief at Becher's