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‘Jumping off the edge of the world’: why Becher’s Brook must go

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?


According to Pete

Grand National 2012

I have said everything I would ever have to say about the Grand National in the past. The only thing, I might add, is that I don’t think it’s a race for a Gold Cup winner and if I think about it too hard it makes me feel sick.

Here’s a picture instead; I prefer Degas’ racehorses to the ballerinas, although I can appreciate those too.

Knowing the Aintree crowd, there’ll be both on the course this afternoon.

Degas: pastels on paper, National Gallery of Canada

‘My Colourful Life’ by Ginger McCain

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.

Gone, but not forgotten

‘How horseracing lives with the spectre of death’

Not my title, Alistair Down’s in the Racing Post (read the full online version here).

I quite often have a problem with Mr Down’s writing style; it’s a kind of why use one set of flowery adjectives, when multiple ones will do. However, on this occasion, he has toned it down and given the subject (the death of two horses in Saturday’s Grand National) the levity it warrants. But still, it grates somehow.

For a start, I do not believe ‘horseracing lives with the spectre of death’. It is most rare to see a racehorse running on the flat (no jumps) knuckle over and die. Of course it happens occasionally, sadly, but it happens mainly because of some intrinsic issue with the horse – not because we have popped some very extrinsic fences in the way of their progress. So yes, jump racing does indeed live with that spectre, because a fence can trip up a horse at any time, occasionally fatally, but deaths in flat racing are far less usual.

I know horses do not jump obstacles naturally. Show me footage of horses sailing over obstacles in the wild? Even a horse schooled by humans to clear a fence will stand patiently in a field waiting to be taken back to their stable at dinner time – they do not jump over the gate (Tesio, Breeding the Racehorse). Jumping ability is not hereditary in horses, because it is not a genetic predisposition. We train them and ask that they do it. We should take responsibility for that. Allowing horses that have never jumped the peculiar technicalities of a National fence, in a field of 30+ horses is, I would venture, inviting tragedy. Of course danger can never be removed, but asking a horse and rider to jump an obstacle at any speed is always going to cause falls and those falls lead to injury, sometimes death.

I can’t bear falls. I don’t watch jump racing really for that reason. It’s not a moral stance, it’s a position borne out of logic, observation and personal taste. As Down says, in jump racing, ‘fatalities are inevitable’. I am not prepared to back that inevitability.

See you on the Rowley Mile Alistair? Oh no, I won’t will I. But we won’t fall out if I do because you say you ‘have no argument with those who disapprove of jump racing. But with those who seek to emasculate it beyond recognition or ban it entirely I am implacably at odds.’

Actually, I wouldn’t mind a ban; I think they have gone that far in the state of Victoria, Australia already.

And then I lose patience with the man entirely, as he reverts to type.

‘Those who love jump racing hail from every geographical corner and inhabit all social strata of these islands. They are Everyman and they are legion.’

No, mate, they bloody aren’t. If they were, we would still be hunting foxes.

Ribot: not bred by Tesio to jump

State of Play: a legend in our eyes

When I say ‘our’ I mean his connections and mine. Turning in at Aintree yesterday (and isn’t that just the longest, hardest to look at run-in in the world) he looked to be merely a finisher, well down the field. Then somehow and I don’t know how, because rightly the camera was focussing on the monumentally brave, from the front, run of the winner Ballabriggs, the little bay by Hernando managed to finish 4th.

So when State of Play’s trainer, Evan Williams, said he was a ‘legend’ for finishing in the top four in the race for the third year in a row, I made him right. I like Evan, I met him once at Cheltenham and we had a chat about an ex-flat racehorse that Williams had sent over hurdles and coaxed a win out of. I think the horse was called Spartacus, or I’m Spartacus, or something; not that it matters. Williams had said a few days before the race that he didn’t think his horse was quite up to winning the National in any case, a fact that had passed me by, which was just as well as I might have thought twice about my each way bet @ 28/1. Anyway it was good that Ballabriggs won for the McCain family in the trademark Red Rum noseband. It was less good that the winner had such a hard time he had to receive oxygen on the track and then there is the sad fact that the race claimed the lives of two horses: Dooney’s Gate and Ornais. In an earlier race on the card jockey Peter Toole took a nasty fall and is in a critical condition in hospital with a head injury; we can only wish him well.

It is a hard race the National, and it is a hard game, the jumps. The bad news sort of takes it out of you a bit, so I will leave today’s post with the words of Evan Williams on State of Play’s performance and why he sees him, rightly, as a legend.

To be associated with a horse that has done it and done this much for my career and our yard, I will never have another horse that has done what he has done for me.

He is a very, very sweet horse and will always have a very special place in my heart. It is a difficult task to be placed in one National but to have done it three years on the bounce is an incredible endorsement of how tough and genuine the horse is.

He had a great start and was first crossing the Melling Road and was shuffled back down the field but he had a storming finish as guts and sheer determination of that little horse kept him going.

*wipes away tear*

Him coming back next year is something I would have to to give plenty of thought to. It would be silly of me to say what I will do next year now.

Evan, please don’t bring the little horse back next year, he’s done enough. They’ve all done enough.

The Grand National: the Greatest Horse Race?

I don’t see the Grand National that way; in fact I usually don’t see it all, as it makes me so nervous. Nowadays I would prefer any number of flat races, but as a child I knew what the race was alright: a black and white horse racing bonanza that Red Rum nearly always won. As a child in the 1970s, I knew, because I saw them, that Red Rum was the greatest racehorse, Muhammed Ali was the greatest boxer and Nottingham Forest were the greatest football team. End of the matter. And even with various horses and boxers winning in glorious technicolour since, I have not changed my mind about the first two sporting legends.

Red Rum was the last horse to win back-to-back Nationals (his second in 1974) so with that being nearly 40 years ago you could say with statistics on your side that Don’t Push It has a mountain to climb in defence of his crown this afternoon. On the other hand you could say that the statistics could be offset by the power of the man in saddle: the McCoy factor.

I won’t be saying any of those things. I will be backing State of Play in the National for the third time in this race. This year he races off 10 stone 6 pounds (his lightest weight ever in the race) and he goes to Aintree with no prep run at all. In fact, if anything, his prep run was last year’s 3rd place in the Grand National. I don’t know if this will make any difference, but his trainer, Evan Williams, seems happy enough with the horse and he has a fair enough chance.

Fingers crossed for all the runners and riders at 4.15 this afternoon: they are all a lot braver than me.

From Ginger McCain’s My Colourful Life.

Around the time the time we acquired Red Rum, I was struck by the fact that world champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson had taken his own hairdresser with him wherever he went. I thought, well, if Sugar Ray had a personal hairdresser, Red Rum can have his own blacksmith. So, when Red Rum went racing, Bob went with him…

…From the moment we first saw that Red Rum had his problems, Bob took care of him. No other person ever shod him. He wouldn’t let anyone else touch his feet. Neither would I.

AP McCoy

I’ve hardly mentioned racing since the flat season ended; at the moment there’s little to no racing to mention anyway.

I can’t let today go though without saying I hope AP wins the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in an hour or so.

I don’t want to diss other sportspeople, but can you put a golfer or a darts player in the same division as this Iron Man who has ridden over a 3000 winners, raced the equivalent of one and quarter times around the world, taken nigh on a thousand falls, gets up when we are all still asleep and travels the length and the breadth of the country to ride horses. All on a diet of a celery stick, hard runs and sweating to keep about a stone and a half under his natural weight. An inventory of his broken bones would include: a middle and lower vertebrae, both shoulder blades, ribs, an ankle, cheekbones, a wrist, a leg and chipped teeth.

To me it’s not in the same ball-park of achievement.

He’s going to win, it’s Written in the Stars.

A Sporting Summit in the Snug

Despite some disapproving interruptions, the blog’s resident Grand National expert AMB and I were able to run the once over the field the other afternoon.

Well, to be truthful, we only had time for the once over over two of the field (again). No matter, this is the summary of the insightful and professional discussion. Really, I am at a loss to understand why there were no cameras there…

Niche Market has weight yes, but mitigating this stat is the fact that the top of the handicap has become increasingly compressed over recent years – more and more horses are carrying the deal-breaking 11st 1lb+ stone. Our expert feels this could be the year we break the weight stat barrier. The remarkable Hedgehunter won with 11st 1lb in 2005, but you have to go digging to find Corbiere carrying 11st 4lb in 1983 – all of 27 years ago. Proving the bus rule, Grittar won the year before that with 11st 5lb. Of more concern is the horse’s entry at Cheltenham. Tut tut. The other thing the horse lacks, and can do nothing about until next year, is course experience.

On the other hand li’l ol’ State of Play has the Aintree factor and is green to go across the other criteria.  I think the only thing he needs is some luck in running and ground no softer than last year’s good to soft.

Definitely State of Play with that blue rope

That’s it. We moved swiftly on to the Wayne Bridge / John Terry non-handshake before the other house guests ears began to bleed.

P.S. Cover them house guests – after I wrote the above the Blog Expert forwarded this interesting link about the compressed handicap from the Official Handicapper.  I swear those two are hand in glove.

Weights for the Grand National 2010

These have been published today. Fallout so far: Mouse Morris says War of Attrition won’t run with the allotted weight. Our own AMB’s (the blog’s resident Grand National expert) pick Niche Market has gone up 4lb for his good showing in the Aon.

From my own point of view I have always been sweet on State of Play and he gets in on a lightweight, along with another former Hennessy winner, Trabolgan.

Over to AMB and her traffic light coded spreadsheet 🙂

Weights for the John Smith’s Grand National

Horse Age Weight Trainer

ALBERTAS RUN 9-11-10 Jonjo O’Neill
MADISONDU BERLAIS 9-11-10 David Pipe
NOTRE PERE 9-11-10 Jim Dreaper
TARANIS 9-11-09 Paul Nicholls
OUR VIC 12-11-08 David Pipe
MON MOME 10-11-07 VenetiaWilliams
BLACK APALACHI 11-11-06 Dessie Hughes
JOE LIVELY 11-11-06 Colin Tizzard
VIC VENTURI 10-11-06 Dessie Hughes
COMPLY OR DIE 11-11-05 David Pipe
DON’T PUSH IT 10-11-05 Jonjo O’Neill
IRISH INVADER 9-11-05 Willie Mullins
MADE IN TAIPAN 8-11-04 Tom Mullins
NICHE MARKET 9-11-04 Bob Buckler
TRICKY TRICKSTER 7-11-04 Paul Nicholls
CASEY JONES 9-11-03 Noel Meade
CLOUDY LANE 10-11-03 Donald McCain Jnr
DREAM ALLIANCE 9-11-03 Philip Hobbs
NOZIC 9-11-03 Paul Nicholls
POSSOL 7-11-03 Henry Daly
SIEGEMASTER 9-11-03 Dessie Hughes
MY WILL 10-11-02 Paul Nicholls
PABLO DU CHARMIL 9-11-02 David Pipe
ONE COOL COOKIE 9-11-01 Charlie Swan
WAR OF ATTRITION 11-11-01 Mouse Morris
BACKSTAGE 8-11-00 Gordon Elliott
BALLYHOLLAND 9-11-00 Colin McBratney
BEAT THE BOYS 9-11-00 Nigel Twiston-Davies
PREISTS LEAP 10-11-00 Tom O’Leary
ROULEZ COOL 7-11-00 Robert Waley-Cohen
BERONI 8-10-13 Willie Mullins
CAN’T BUY TIME 8-10-13 Jonjo O’Neill
LE BEAU BAI 7-10-13 Richard Lee
SEVEN IS MY NUMBER 8-10-13 David Pipe
SNOWY MORNING 10-10-13 Willie Mullins
AIR FORCE ONE (GER) 8-10-12 Brian Walsh Charlie Mann
BIG FELLA THANKS 8-10-12 Paul Nicholls
DARKNESS 11-10-12 Charles Egerton
DEUTSCHLAND (USA) 7-10-12 Willie Mullins
LOUPING D’AINAY 11-10-12 ancois Cottin
CHELSEAHARBOUR 10-10-11 Mullins
DOONEYS GATE 9-10-11 Willie Mullins
GONE TO LUNCH 10-10-11 Jeremy Scott
KORNATI KID 8-10-11 Philip Hobbs
STATE OF PLAY 10-10-11 Evan Williams
ELLERSLIE GEORGE 10-10-10 Nick Mitchell
FOLLOW THE PLAN 7-10-10 Oliver McKiernan
JAYO 7-10-10 Willie Mullins
ROYALCOUNTYSTAR 11-10-10 Tony Martin
BALLYFITZ 10-10-09 Nigel Twiston-Davies
CONNA CASTLE 11-10-09 Jimmy Mangan
EQUUS MAXIMUS 10-10-09 Willie Mullins
ERIC’S CHARM 12-10-09 Oliver Sherwood
KING JOHNS CASTLE 11-10-09 Arthur Moore
OLLIE MAGERN 12-10-09 Nigel Twiston-Davies
ARBOR SUPREME 8-10-08 Willie Mullins
CANE BRAKE 11-10-08 Tom Taaffe
KILCREA CASTLE 8-10-08 Emma Lavelle
LENNON 10-10-08 Howard Johnson
MALJIMAR 10-10-08 Nick Williams
NEW ALCO 9-10-08 Ferdy Murphy
BIBLE LORD 9-10-07 Andy Turnell
IRISH RAPTOR 11-10-07 Nigel Twiston-Davies
MR POINTMENT 11-10-07 Paul Murphy
PARSONS PISTOL 8-10-07 Noel Meade
PIRAYA 7-10-07 David Pipe
RAZOR ROYALE 8-10-07 Nigel Twiston-Davies
THE PACKAGE 7-10-07 David Pipe
HELLO BUD 12-10-06 Nigel Twiston-Davies
IRIS DE BALME 10-10-06 Sean Curran
PALYPSO DE CREEK 7-10-06 Charlie Longsdon
TRUST FUND 12-10-06 Richard Barber
ABBEYBRANEY 9-10-05 Howard Johnson
CERIUM 9-10-05 Paul Murphy
FLINTOFF (USA) 9-10-05 VenetiaWilliams
PARSONS LEGACY 12-10-05 Philip Hobbs
ROYAL ROSA 11-10-05 Howard Johnson
SILVER BIRCH 13-10-05 Gordon Elliott
COE 8-10-04 Sue Smith
GLENFINN CAPTAIN 11-10-04 Tom Taaffe
KNOWHERE 12-10-04 Nigel Twiston-Davies
OODACHEE 11-10-04 Charlie Swan
WHINSTONE BOY 9-10-04 Jimmy Mangan
FAASEL 9-10-03 David Pipe
MUMBLES HEAD 9-10-03 Peter Bowen
OFFICIER DE RESERVE 8-10-03 VenetiaWilliams
SIZING AUSTRALIA 8-10-03 Henry de Bromhead
TRABOLGAN 12-10-03 Nicky Henderson
CHIEF DAN GEORGE 10-10-02 Jimmy Moffatt
DUERS 8-10-02 Paul Magnier
BALLYTRIM 9-10-01 Willie Mullins
OFFSHORE ACCOUNT 10-10-01 Charlie Swan
PAK JACK 10-10-01 Richard Phillips
BOYCHUK 9-10-00 Philip Hobbs
KINGS ADVOCATE 10-10-00 Tom Taaffe
TREACLE 9-10-00 Tom Taaffe
GALANT NUIT 6-9-13 Ferdy Murphy
BELON GALE 7-9-12 Howard Johnson
POMME TIEPY 7-9-12 Willie Mullins
MERIGO 9-9-10 Andrew Parker
CHIARO 8-9-09 Philip Hobbs
KILBEGGAN BLADE 11-9-09 Tom George
ACCORDING TO JOHN 10-9-08 Nicky Richards
LORUM LEADER 9-9-07 Dr Richard Newland
OLD BENNY 9-9-07 Alan King
OVER THE CREEK 11-9-04 David Pipe
COSSACK DANCER 12-9-01 Mark Bradstock
WEE ROBBIE 10-9-00 Nick Gifford
OFFALY 9-8-12 Pru Townsley

The Day Strong Men Wept – Grand National Day


Well the quote actually relates to Red Rum’s historic and unlikely to be equalled record of three wins in the race in 1977, but I think it sums up the essence of the day each year.

Some will win and some will lose and some worse but let’s hope perpetually that won’t be the case this year.

I have always loved horses and Red Rum was my favourite as a child, along with the t.v. Black Beauty who was my first pin up.  Now as a weak-stomached adult I can hardly bear to look but as always, the romance and expectation of the thing will see me take my headphones to listen to the commentary at the Emirates this afternoon.

If you are running, riding or playing – good luck and I will leave you with a quote from the ineffable Ginger McCain who wrote in his book “From Red to Amber”

“I said when Red Rum started to become a good horse that I wouldn’t sit on him until he retired.  If truth were known I didn’t want to insult him.”

The legend training on Southport beach

The legend training on Southport beach