Grand National season once again provided moments to live long in the memory. From Corach Rambler rewarding favourite backers to hand Lucinda Russell a second success in the big one at Aintree, to the emotional victory of Kitty’s Light at Ayr, the major events on both sides of the border delivered in spades.
However, all was not rosy, with the anti-horse racing protestors once again taking their opportunity to grab the spotlight on the biggest stages, in an effort to highlight all that they believe is wrong with the sport.
Aintree Protests at the Grand National
Watched by 100s of millions around the globe and, despite recent modifications, still home to the biggest fences in the sport, the Aintree Grand National continues to provide the most obvious stage for animal rights activist groups. For those who watch only one horse race a year, that race is the Aintree Grand National.
It was, therefore, no real surprise that in the lead-up to the 2023 event, Animal Rising stated their intent to stage a protest at the track and try to disrupt the race. True to their word, a large number of protestors attempted to make it onto the course – either by forcing entry in a vulnerable area between Becher’s Brook and the Canal Turn, or by scaling the perimeter fence – with many bringing ladders along for the occasion. Despite the best efforts of the police, the Aintree Security Team, and members of the general public, nine individuals did make it onto the track, with some attaching themselves to the second fence with glue, and others trying to shackle themselves to the rails.
All of the above served to achieve the objective of disrupting the race, which ultimately went off around 15 minutes later than scheduled, by which time all protestors had been removed from the track. In the end, a total of 118 arrests were made on the day, although this number was subsequently decreased, with 42 individuals de-arrested on Sunday.
Once the race was underway, many of those protesting may well have felt immediately vindicated by the fatal fall at the first fence of Hill Sixteen. But on the other side of the coin, the trainer of Hill Sixteen, Sandy Thompson, attributed the horse’s fall to becoming increasingly worked up due to the delay. Hill Sixteen was the only fatality in this year’s race, although Dark Raven and Envoye Special also sadly lost their lives in earlier races at the meeting.
Activism Followed at Ayr
Following events at Aintree, the police and security forces were on high alert ahead of the next major event on the racing calendar – the Scottish Grand National at Ayr. Whilst not enjoying anything like the profile of its Merseyside counterpart, the marathon affair provided the opportunity for the protestors to build on their Aintree efforts – albeit on a significantly smaller scale.
Having been made aware of a possible protest the night before, the Police Force were able to utilise the local knowledge of the Ayr Racecourse security staff to successfully secure the most vulnerable areas of the course. However, a small group did manage to make their way onto the track from the launchpad of a Tesco Car Park located in line with the mid-point of the six-furlong course. From there, it appears that the aim was to cross both the flat and hurdles courses, in order to access the chase track and, presumably, undertake similar actions to those witnessed at Aintree just seven days earlier.
On this occasion – likely as a result of the smaller numbers involved, in addition to the advanced warning to the security teams – the protest proved to be a largely fruitless exercise – eliciting a few boos from the assembled 17,000 crowd but failing to draw an announcement on the public address system or delay the start of the race. The endeavour saw 25 arrests made on the day, and despite the minimal disruption, did bring the subject of horse welfare into the spotlight once more.
At Ayr, no horses died in the Scottish Grand National itself, but there were nevertheless black spots on the meeting; Oscar Elite suffered a fatal injury when seeming to stumble on a flat section of the course in a novice chase contest earlier on the card, whilst former Scottish Grand National winner, Mighty Thunder, suffered an aneurysm when running loose on his way back to the stables.
It seems unlikely that the two sides of this argument will ever align. On one hand, the activist groups will likely only be satisfied when the Grand National, and possibly horse racing as a whole, is banned entirely, putting forward the argument that even one racing-related death is one too many.
‘It’s about actions that capture and inspire the imagination, and that you can start to build a movement around’
Listen to Animal Rising spokesperson Ben talk with @itsdavidramms about his experience on the track at the Grand National last saturday. Feeling inspired?
You can… pic.twitter.com/gu1uSairUz
— Animal Rising (@AnimalRising) April 22, 2023
Those within racing meanwhile may point to the fact that these animals are specifically bred for the sport and are incredibly well looked after throughout their careers – from the moment they are foaled, through their careers, and often on to a post-racing career, or a happy retirement. Anyone witnessing the devastation of owners, trainers, jockeys and grooms following the death of a horse, would likely find it hard to argue with the fact that these animals are not, at the very least, loved.
It is also encouraging to note that racing is adopting a proactive approach towards improving the safety of the sport. The ultimate goal of zero fatalities is likely to improve an impossible task but, since the improvements made to the Grand National fences, the number of both fallers and fatalities has decreased, whilst the number of fatalities within National Hunt Racing as a whole is also at an all-time low.
Whether this decreased risk is still too high, relative to the high-quality life enjoyed by many 1,000s of racehorses and the related employment benefits for the industry as a whole, remains a question on which opinion continues to differ.