In nineteen days’ time, Hello Bud will officially turn fifteen. His actual birth day was April 24th 1998, but all racehorses are deemed 1 year older on January 1st and that is the age that will appear alongside his name if he lines up in the John Smith’s Grand National on April 6th.
It is rare for a 15-y-o to be in training. The last of that age to run in the National was MacMoffat in 1947.
Hello Bud is one of my favourite horses, a game front runner who jumps very well. He has never fallen over fences and his victory in The Becher Chase last Saturday, a race he won in 2010, was over the National fences, although it is more than a mile shorter than the big race in April.
The National is often described as racing’s shop window. But it’s a shop which opens just once a year as far as the public is concerned and among the millions gaping, there are plenty with big bricks in their hands. On view in recent times, equine corpses, a trail of exhausted dismounted horses having buckets of water thrown on them by panicky people lest they collapse in view of millions. That sweating cavalry were led home by a beautiful big horse who was thrashed all the way up the run-in by his jockey.
Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised died in the 2012 race after throwing his rider before the start. Some believe his fatal injury was caused by the thick wooden stakes making up the core of each spruce-dressed fence. Those wooden cores are on their way out and should have been dispensed with many years ago. They were removed from four fences for last weekend’s Becher meeting.
The shop-window audience is increasingly filling with rubber-neckers and animal rights people.
Dene Stansall, spokesman for Animal Aid told Chris Cook of The Guardian,
“We did some research in 2008, looking at racehorses that were killed between March 2007 and March 2008, and we found that most of those who collapsed and died were older horses running over a long distance. I think there is a question over whether it’s right or not for him to be taking his chance. Obviously, we remember Mac Vidi getting placed in the  Gold Cup at the age of 15, though that was a very long time ago.
“It’ll be a different ballgame for Hello Bud in April, running against 39 horses rather than 15 [last Saturday] and probably on faster ground, when he might be taken off his feet. Pointing to the horse’s career earnings of £320,000, Stansall said: “He’s done enough, surely. He’s earned his retirement. The National would be one step too far.”
I cannot verify Mr Stansall’s research but you can bet that most editors won’t seek verification before publishing his quotes. Mr Stansall, from a personal viewpoint, is doubtless sincere in not wanting Hello Bud to run. But he will be delighted to make all he can of the opportunity should the BHA not step in and end this now, well before entries for the race open.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with allowing Hello Bud to take part in a marathon steeplechase. In the interests of the horse and his connections and, crucially the interests of fairness, justice, whatever you want to call it, he should be allowed to run anywhere he is fit to.
His owner/trainer Nigel Twiston Davies, who has won the National with Bindaree and Earth Summit, told Chris Cook,
“Why is the poor horse going to deteriorate so much in the next three and a half months? It’s ridiculous. He’s led them a merry dance [in the Becher], he’s beaten a previous National winner. I’ll withdraw him instantly if they can prove that his age is going to put him at such a great risk but I don’t think they can.
“They could say these things if he’d trailed round in last but he didn’t. There’s a risk every time you canter a horse, or gallop them at home. If he gave up racing, he’d go hunting or chasing a trail or something like that, where he’d be just as likely to break a leg. Do they want me to put him in a field for the rest of his days and tell him, sorry about the cold weather?
“If ever you saw a horse enjoying himself in a race, it was him on Saturday. I think it’s a bit silly to talk about horses enjoying themselves, which is a human thing, but at the very least he wasn’t showing any resentment. I put him out in a field with our other horses who had run at the weekend and he was the one who was bucking and kicking most of all.”
I cannot dispute a word of that. Nigel knows him better than anyone and the last thing he would do is put any horse at risk.
But it’s not the risk to the horse that’s paramount here, it is the risk to the future of the Grand National. We have more than our fair share of experts in this sport but you need not be one to foresee the folly of allowing a fifteen-year-old to run in the National. A class of school-children the same age as the horse faced with doing a risk-assessment on the potential PR impact would, I’m sure, recommend that he should not take part.
The BHA has the power to prevent any horse running in any race (under rule 12.4.4). A specialist BHA-organised panel also assembles to judge the qualifications of each horse before the Grand National. Last year, a minimum age limit of seven was introduced. How they must now wish they’d stuck a solid bookend at the upper level too.
There is a chance that Hello Bud will not ‘get in’ anyway (there is a cut-off ballot for this maximum field of 40 based on a horse’s handicap mark; Hello Bud’s mark is 133 and that might just be short of what is needed). But I believe the BHA should act before the end of the year to nip this particular Bud. Formally, there might be nothing they can do until entries have been made, but they should let the trainer know they will simply not allow the horse to run.
If he misses the National, Mr Twiston-Davies says Hello Bud will run in The Topham. Fine, that’s a reasonable trade-off. It will be a smaller field over a much shorter trip and, vitally, the curtains will not yet have been opened on racing’s shop window.
Long-term sponsors Heineken, via their John Smith’s brand, will be wishing they’d ended their sponsorship in 2012 (the 2013 race is their last as sponsors). Reportedly, there has been disquiet for some time in the sponsors’ HQ about the image of the National. It’s gone from a wayward PR firecracker to something much more threatening for a sponsor, and if Hello Bud is allowed to run it becomes a time-bomb.