What a strange week for the old and the new world view.
It started last Saturday when the Grand National was run at Aintree. This once fiercesome steeplechase was the pinnacle of the racing calendar for the jumping horse. Not just because it all but brings the season to a close, but that it is an event worthy of its National title, and for the public interest it generates as a one-off racing date for millions of would be punters.
Alas, as with all things in this country today, the do-gooding, bunny hugging, fox loving, doe-eyed, animal rights myopically healthy and safety brigade, have done for it.
Now this is not necessarily a view that will be shared by many people and certainly not by non-horsey folk. But here goes . . .
Due to a rise in regrettable equine fatalities in recent years, the pressure put upon the British Horseracing Authority to lower and soften the fences – was heralded as a success, but to some it made this years ‘spectacle’ almost an apology.
Recent history suggested that apart from the usual shenanigans with the starting tape, the horses ‘go off’ too fast. A shortened run to the first was thus designed to slow the field of 40 down, and a further softening of the brush fences introduced to reduce casualties. Ok, no need to reduce the punters hopes by half in the first few furlongs but to have reached the infamous 6th fence, Bechers’s Brook – the once legendary ‘graveyard’ of the bold and big-hearted, with ALL riders still on board was unheard of. Then to see all 40 still ‘in the plate’ when they moved on towards the 7th, suggested that this race had suddenly lost its serious edge.
Please do not misunderstand me, a horse fatality is as upsetting and regrettable to me as the next man. More so actually, as an owner of more than a few equines, I fully understand the beauty in their presence and the huge sense of loss, in every way, in their departing. But this is Steeplechasing, and with it comes a unique challenge for the boldest of horses and the bravest of riders. The ever lurking presence of danger, injury and death are what made the race unique. On Saturday by the second circuit, there were so many fences in holes that many horses simply hopped through the gaps liked Pony Clubbers on a Fun Ride.
But was ‘dumbing down ‘ the race the only way forward?
Happily for those who would rather like to see the race (and horse racing in general) banned, no horses suffered this year and I applaud that. Then again, only 2 horses fell in the entire race and despite the pelters that I may receive for this view – the art of the race is to stay in the saddle against some terrifying odds – but the spectacle – and the old omelette theory about breaking eggs, rather comes into play – is when those who fall along the way (albeit unhurt) add to the sense of glory. And anyone who knows the hunting wisdom of Cecil Aldin will appreciate his words – “a fall, is like the mustard to the ham”.
Curious statistics show that since the tampering with the fences started during the past 30 years, the fatalities had actually increased, in that 25 poor beasts failed to go home.
Whilst in the preceding ‘bad old days’ of the 50s,60s and early 70s, half of the races in that era evoked no fatalities at all. And almost half the number in total.
So why should an old-fashioned race of bigger, less yielding fences give a better chance of survival? Well a wise old jockey tells me that “the ‘orses respected the big old stiff birch, so the jockeys didn’t go so quick, so they jumped better.” The fear factor was truly a contributor to the survival factor. But how do you tell someone who has never sat on a horse, let alone experienced the thrill of a riding at a big black hedge, that some horses do not respect small fences and will add the equation of increasing speed, over any distance will exacerbate fatigue as just a potent a recipe for disaster??
But as the way things go – it is very difficult to explain this perspective to the blinkered and I don’t mean those with the sheepskin nose-bands. It was much the same with foxhunting. The hate and ignorance leveled at a community who understand both the country way and the viciousness of the fox, were never going to seem reasonable to the shrieking harridans who believe that the natural world should be one big fluffy Disney cartoon. Another British Institution bites the dust.
Which reminds me, oh yes, Margaret Thatcher died too. But instead of any equitable equine-sque respect, some people held street parties to dance upon her grave. Ho-hum.