“Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.” (W.C. Fields)
The 2018 Grand National was the 171st annual running of one of the most famous horse races on the planet. It was first run in 1839. Races were cancelled during the First and Second World Wars and also in 1993 owing to a false start. The showpiece steeplechase at the Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool is a British sporting institution, the pinnacle of a three-day festival that is believed to attract over 154,000 racegoers and up to 600 million TV viewers around the globe. It has been broadcast on British television since 1960 (and on the radio since 1927) and has made headlines year after year. The prize fund is now a whopping £1,000,000.
Steeped in history, the steeplechase takes place over four miles with horses jumping hedges and fences (plus dips filled with water) over two laps and is regarded by many as the ‘ultimate test of horse and rider’. It is longer than other National Hunts and features much larger fences, including The Chair (a staggering 5ft 2in tall), Valentine’s, Becher’s Brook and the Canal Turn, all famous (or infamous) for their formidable, fear-inducing nature.
Although only 11 horses have died in the Grand National race itself since the year 2000, a total of 1,677 animals have lost their lives on racecourses over the last nine years. Additionally, thousands are killed every year when they fail to make the grade or when their racing days are deemed to be over. According to Elisa Allen of Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals): “Hundreds of horses are killed on British racetracks every year – and for nothing more than a bet. Countless others endure catastrophic breakdowns, fractured bones and broken spines, and thousands are slaughtered for dog food once they’re no longer considered profitable, including the foals bred for racing who don’t make the grade.”
So, is the Grand National in particular, and horse racing in general, an iconic staple of our culture? Or is it the kind of anachronistic barbarity we should be thoroughly ashamed of?