Wonderful performance of winning team buried with Dooney’s Gate and Ornais

In the aftermath of the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National, how do you avoid clichés like “everybody regrets the death of any horse” etc.?

When the rhetoric is stripped away, any defence of two horses dying in a horse race on which around £150m was bet, is bound to be feeble.  The uproar is the price we pay for having the most famous race in the world.  Had Dooney’s Gate and Ornais died at home on the gallops, there wouldn’t be a single mention outside the racing sections of the papers.

But they died in full view of  many millions watching on TV. Not only that but the survivors were forced to take avoiding action as they galloped past the lifeless bodies of two horses who’d lined up alongside them five minutes earlier. The roadside BBC coverage of the field bypassing the fourth fence offered viewers the gruesome site of an old tarpaulin covering the body of Ornais (why no screens?).

Worse, the director cut to an aerial view as the runners sheered away to go round Becher’s, therefore exposing to the world what the screens round Dooney’s Gate were supposed to cover: a dead horse and a few people standing around it doing nothing because there was nothing to be done.

The BBC’s ‘ Grand National coverage has long been an issue for racing, in my opinion. I wrote an article on April 1st and the BBC responded formally in the comments section. I worked at Aintree in the mid ’90s and although the BBC appears to have fallen out of love with racing in general, their team at Aintree was always co-operative, enthusiastic, utterly professional and very helpful.  I’ve no reason to believe anything has changed in the relationship.

The reality is that there’s little more we can do to make the race safer, other than radical changes like introducing a draw which sends runners off in three ranks through a chicane to seriously reduce speed as they they approach the first.

What is in our control,to a reasonable extent, is how the race is presented to the public via the lenses of the BBC.  A structure should be agreed on coverage, and re-runs (slowmo of fallers a huge PR bullet in the foot), not just of the big race, but of the whole meeting.

In the meantime, we should feel some sympathy too for the McCains, Jason Maguire and the magnificent Ballabriggs – was there ever a more strikingly handsome Grand National winner? Their marvelous achievement in the second-fastest running of this great race has been smothered by the negative coverage.  Unfortunately, their day in the sun was a literal one, the effects of the heat producing a distressing and disorganised scramble rather than a glorious return to the famous winner’s enclosure.

Doubtless, Aintree will look too at avoiding a repeat of the winning jockey battling through crowds in an inglorious return to the weighing room. They should also set up something more elaborate for the combat of heat exhaustion in horses. Water being flung rather desperately from plastic buckets over the gallant finishers did not quite convey the image of a highly organised operation; small in the scheme of events, perhaps, but leaving racing open to such barbs as ‘If that’s the best they can do for heat-stressed horses, no wonder  some die on the course’.

5 thoughts on “Wonderful performance of winning team buried with Dooney’s Gate and Ornais

  1. Perhaps it should be a requirement for Grand National horses and jockeys to have schooled over the fences. I understand that this happens with the xcountry races at Cheltenham. Presumably this is to allow the particpants to familiarise themselves with obstacles that are a bit different from the norm, so why not for the Grand National?

    I agree about the availability of water. Equine showers seem to be a standard facility at racecourses on the continent, I can’t understand why they aren’t here. Both Aintree and Cheltenham missed an opportunity to install such facilities during recent improvements.

    1. Horses becoming dehydrated after racing is far from unusual. It happens on the Flat as well as over jumps.
      Throwing buckets of water over horses to cool them down seems ridiculously low tech in this day and age.
      As far as I could see a water hose was not immediately available in the pull-up area at Aintree.
      Whether a water hose is any better than buckets I don’t know but it still seems a far from an adequate solution.
      Surely. there must be better ways to cool down horses quickly and efficiently.
      I would be very surprised if there isn’t equipment available such as cold air blowers, mobile equine showers or cooling horse blankets.
      There was an incident at Worcester in 2009 when, following a problem in getting enough cold water to cool down a dehydrated horse, racing had to abandoned, despite the River Severn flowing past the grandstand.
      There was a lot of criticism at the time about the lack of a pump to use the water in the river.
      Another major problem is the lack of shade for horses at racecourses.
      On many courses there is simply nowhere to go to get a horse out of the sun after a race.
      Many trees have been cut down on racecourses to help give racegoers a clear view of proceedings.
      The enclosures for unsaddling horses on many courses have no shaded areas at all and, even if Global Warming is a myth, there will be days when temperatures soar.
      I am no physicist, but as we are told not to wash a car on a hot day as the water can heat up and damage the paintwork, it seems possible to me that throwing water over a horse on a blazing hot sunny day could actually be counter-productive. The heat of the sun and the horse’s own raised temperature could rapidly heat up the thin film of water covering the horse and make things even worse.

      1. Very good points KM. Thanks for taking the time to comment and good luck with your website.


  2. The media stew is a good reminder to the sport never to stop thinking of safety. Having said that it’s not that rational either.

    Racing over fences is inherently dangerous for horses and riders and will remain so. The National is a significant factor more dangerous again due to the extreme field size, ultra galloping nature of the course and high fences. It’s also unusual in that a huge proportion of the runners are completely laid out for the race all year and arrive in prime shape to run for their lives.

    The criticism and widespread coverage horse deaths attract would be there even if the rate of deaths was less frequent. It is however something that has to be addressed. the sight of stricken or dead horses is not a pleasant one so there is value in a reduction.

    Modifying the course is one thing. Whilst one does not want to create French/X Country racing where they run as a pack and sprint at the end maybe the course could be amended to have more features or bends that slow the pace.

    Reducing the runners might help reduce crowding and take the edge of some of the early pace. The race has improved and the 10 2 milers thrown into have a day out no longer blight the race. The pace last 2 years has been pushed to a degree by staying horses who finished 1st and 2nd. 30/32 runners seems sensible especially if runners are excluded by suitability not just handicap mark.

    While he got round 230 lengths behind the winner what was XXXXXX (not wanting to single anyone out) in the race for? A small horse whose running suggests he would like a small field. Another had 2 starts in 3 years prior in hunter chases, would a jockey be allowed off a similar prep in amateur races? If re-handicapped might not have got in the race? I could mention others but the point is Racing made judgements on the jockeys who could compete but not the horses? Experience of staying chases, big fields, the fences etc should be taken into account IMO.

    Having said all this a 32 runner race round a figure of 8 (any course layout that slows pace) is still going to be an ordeal over 4.5 miles and the fences. Make it as safe as we can but maybe accept one day the race will be unacceptable. However we should try.

    Racing should also nominate it’s spokespeople better. Public school boys prattling about the challenge maybe right but it’s the wrong message. Like I said to my Kings School educated team captain when he said we should play better opponents I said it’s not your neck 35 stone of prop and hooker are leaning on. Most of us are not looking to be challenged in life and seemingly equating a death toll of horses as some initiation/courage test is not one that will go down well.

    Racing should avoid going on about how well looked after the horses are as it’s something to be proud of but sounds like we are justifying trying to kill horses. Better to reiterate the death of the horses is unfortunate and no one wants it and we work to reduce it to a minimum. Racing has nothing to be ashamed of and it’s no issue to look again and again at safety. (The Daily Fail which demands no H&S for humans a measure of the brutal hypocrisy of our press).

    We need to separate the Animal Rights types for whom only leaving animals roam free is acceptable and the public. We have to make efforts to show that scenes the public and I find upsetting are unfortunate and minimised as much as we can.

    In the end if people stop watching and betting on the National is not a problem to me. If it becomes an anachronism then so be it. In many ways I would prefer it had not been invented as at least 10 near top class staying chasers in a narrow field are laid out for this race every year and that is taken from a small population. It used to be Last Suspects at the last chance saloon now some horses are trained from 8 to retirement aimed solely at the race.

    The over arching thing is to respond to the public’s perception positively but not like excusemongering or callous people.

  3. Joe, during the race you could tell they were going too fast, hence why horses made so many mistakes. Just looked at how Big Fella Thanks didnt get home in a race he’s never struggled in before.

    My only suggestions could be to reduce the field to say 36, make conditions softer to slow it down, possibly have a benchmark for jockeys ie. no claimers and finally, make sure all jocks attend a professionally run briefing on the friday night.

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