Let me be clear about this: watching Red Rum win (and come second) in Grand Nationals on black and white telly was my 1970s childhood. Red Rum was, along with Muhammed Ali, my sporting hero. And, because memory works in mysterious ways, I remember watching one, or the other, or both win, in black and white vision in the back room of my great-grandmother Walker’s little council house in Leicester; although I must’ve seen both of them elsewhere too. For me, the sport, my childhood and the family, the love of it all, are inextricably linked; so I can’t hate the Grand National.
Equally, these days, I can’t watch it. The reason being, that the statistics speak for themselves. I know, the odds are that horses will fall, and that from those falls, some horses will die.
I also know now, having looked at the Wikipedia statistics here, that horses are most likely to die in a fall at Becher’s Brook – the awkwardly-shaped fence that horses jump as obstacle number #6 and #22 and that jockeys have described as ‘jumping off the edge of the world.’
Of the 68 horse fatalities in 165 runnings of the race (and I think that 165 includes 3 runnings at Gatwick during the First World War), 15 horses have died in incidents that involved Becher’s Brook. That’s more than double the fatalities of the second most deadly fence (obstacle #4 & #20, that has no name) which has 7 fatalities associated with it. Becher’s Brook is unusual, not in its height of 5 feet – there are 6 others of 5 feet and the tallest, The Chair, is 5’2″, but because its landing side is so much lower than the take off (estimated to be between 6 and 10 inches lower). It was named after Captain Becher parted company with his horse, Conrad, at the obstacle in the first officially run Grand National in 1839. It is a fence designed, not just for jumping, but to catch horses out.
And it does.
And it must stop.
I have read people saying that, yesterday, Synchronised got up from his fall at Becher’s and galloped on, therefore his fatal injury cannot be attributed to the fence, just subsequent ill-luck in riderless running. I would say, how can we know? And then there is According to Pete who also died after being brought down at the same obstacle on the second circuit.
There are other changes, I am sure, that could, and perhaps should be made to the race. But the continued acceptance of a notorious and tricky fence that claims more horses’ lives than any other in the race is a disgrace. The statistic for Becher’s Brook is one that we, those who follow racing under either code, should not continue to stand for.
Captain Becher and Conrad came a cropper in the naming of the fence in 1839. In the one hundred and seventy-three years that have elapsed let us stand for progress, but primarily the welfare of the horse. Let the sad losses of According to Pete and Synchronised be the very last victims of Becher’s Brook.
I, for one, have had enough. Have you?
Today we said goodbye to trainer Ginger McCain; best known for training Red Rum (pictured together above) and Amberleigh House to win four Grand Nationals between them. Then this year Ginger’s son Donald kept up the family tradition by training another Grand National winner in Ballabriggs.
I read Ginger’s autobiography when it came out a few years ago, this is what he wrote about Red Rum in the chapter Goodbye Red.
Until Amberleigh House won the Grand National for me for a fourth time in 2004, there were those who thought I was a one-horse trainer. I wouldn’t ever say that Red Rum and I were meant for each other. Yet I would say we were good for each other. If I hadn’t got him – and I don’t say this in a boastful fashion – he probably wouldn’t have lasted in racing much beyond the age of nine or ten. Where would he have gone from there? He would never have made a good hunter because Red Rum was Red Rum. He wouldn’t jump a bloody twig if he didn’t want to. And so he was out of this world for me. So, when they said I was a one-horse trainer I said that they were probably right. But I did make a good job of that one horse didn’t I? And I can never be anything but eternally grateful to the old lad.
On his grave at Aintree are written the lines:
Respect this place, this hallowed ground,
A legend here his rest has found.
His feet would fly, our spirits soar.
He earned our love for evermore.
Rather nice, that, isn’t it?
Yes Ginger, it is.