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?
I can’t let the Festival week end without noting the general workaday heroism of our jockeys, both jumps and flat. They often come in for a lot of stick (excuse the pun) and if you don’t ride you can have no idea of the physical demands made on their bodies every day, and that’s not including kicks and falls and wasting to make weight.
For my money, these guys are the toughest athletes we have. Early starts, long journeys, seven day weeks on little food – no wonder Andrew Tinkler tweeted this morning that if he’d been lucky enough to win the one million that one of Nicky Henderson’s stable staff did this week on a yard five-timer, Tinkler would be straight off to Heathrow – not riding work the next morning as indeed the lottery winner was (full story here).
Anyway, props to Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy for yesterday; not just for having the wisdom to preserve the beloved Kauto Star after nine fences jumped, nor indeed the looks like you won’t even be placed ride on Synchronised to lift the Gold Cup. No, massive, massive respect for this brief exchange, redolent with meaning, between the two friends and competitors during the running of the Gold Cup, reported in the Racing Post.
Ruby said: “I was thinking about pulling up when
AP [McCoy] said ‘if I were you I’d be pulling up’.
The rest is history.
On another cockles-of-my-heart note, Paul Nicholls is parading Kauto Star, Big Buck’s and Rock on Ruby through Ditcheat this lunchtime, in that order. Kauto Star in front, where he belongs.