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Is It Time To Ban The Grand National?

Britain is an animal-loving nation, home to some of the toughest wildlife laws in the world. From lengthy prison sentences for those who harm animals; to a ban on trophy hunting imports. Yet, at the Grand National all concern for animal welfare seems to vanish and is replaced with a desperate desire to win big money.

The annual horse racing festival takes place at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, commencing on Thursday, with the Grand National race set to culminate the events on Saturday, April 15. A controversial day that is welcomed with excitement by some yet sadly dreaded by others.

Formerly known as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase; it was initiated in 1839 and swiftly began to attract national and even international attention before being aptly renamed the Grand National. Now, horses from all over the world compete, and an estimated 500 million across the globe watch the race live each year.

Horse racing is embedded in British culture, and is worth big bucks. The 2014 Grand National winning prize pot hit seven figures for the first time. Where there is money to be made on animals, exploitation will be rife.


Glorified Abuse

Last year, four horses lost their lives during the three-day festival. Two died in the final race, Éclair Surf suffered head injuries, and Discorama was later euthanised due to a broken pelvis. The two other deaths occurred in different races at the festival, Elle Est Belle died from a heart attack, and Solwara One was euthanised after suffering an undisclosed injury. Any death is too many, yet the race continues to go ahead every year without seemingly much backlash.

Animal Aid is one of the U.K.’s leading charities monitoring the welfare of racehorses and has kept track of every Grand National death since 2000. Since then, 15 horses have died during the ultimate race, and 44 others have perished in other races during the three-day events. Now imagine the horror if a single jockey lost their life and the safety adjustments that would immediately follow.

Dene Stansall, a Horse Welfare Consultant at Animal Aid, said: “History shows that, over the long term, the Grand National course continues to be a perversely harsh test for horses, and one that often proves lethal. Making horses race on that course does not add up to a sporting spectacle, but the most selfish form of animal abuse.”

The Grand National is so infamous because the course is notoriously gruelling. There are 30 fences to jump, all of which are taller than standard horse racing fences, and a total of 40 horses are on the track at one time. Horses must work through their exhaustion to successfully navigate all of this on the almost four-and-a-half-mile course. Shockingly, it seems to be the risk factor that draws in the crowds and makes the race so lucrative.


A Spectacle

Those in favour of the Grand National often label it as a “British sporting institution” and a “spectacle”, depicting it as a prestigious history-making event, attended by glamorous people in suits, gowns, and hats.

Their most used argument is that horses enjoy the race. As supposedly stubborn animals if they do not want to compete, they will not move. Animal Aid contests this view and say “Horses are herd animals. They feel safer when part of a group, especially in the noisy, often unfamiliar race day environment.”

A common conception with horse racing is that off the track the horses are not treated well; however, many trainers and jockeys completely dispute this idea claiming that “They develop incredibly strong bonds with the horses and a deep understanding of their traits and moods”.

While all in the horse racing community cannot be branded the same, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence of horses being mistreated at the hands of those closest to them.

Irish jockey, Davy Russell, was let off with a mere caution after footage emerged of him punching his horse. Gordon Elliott, a Grand National horse trainer, was photographed posing while sitting on his dead horse, who died from a suspected heart attack during a race. The repulsive image went viral, landing him a subsequent 6-months racing ban. Former Irish jockey, Ruby Walsh, ignited fury in 2014 after a racehorse death at Cheltenham Festival. He said “You can replace a horse”, reinforcing this common idea that racehorses are simply commodities to exploit. Examples like these are unfortunately not few and far between.

Critics argue that if the race continues, it needs significant amending to improve safety, as right now it continues to be “deliberately hazardous”. However, organisers have said they continue to make safety adjustments whenever and wherever necessary.

In 2016, the final race was shortened by around 400 metres, and the fences were altered. The landing side of each fence is now almost level with the take-off side to avoid as many falls as possible. Hosing-down areas have also been installed to allow horses to cool down after the race.

However, as the deaths continue, animal rights activists argue that these adjustments are “mere token gestures” to keep campaigners at bay.


So, should it be banned?

The television broadcasts of the events, highlighting the celebrations and the glamour, appear to have obscured the barbaric reality of the Grand National. Horse injuries and deaths have ultimately become expected, and racegoers have become desensitised. However, calls for its discarding are increasing as animal charities continue to pack on the pressure.

Some traditions have a sell-by date, they are cruel and should be left in the history books. With so many deaths and injuries, it seems a good time for the U.K. to hang up the saddles and call it a day on the Grand National. There is no place for such archaic practices in the 21st century.


Edited by: Kavya

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