All National jockeys pre-instructed to dismount at the end; we should have been told beforehand

Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare for the British Horseracing Authority writes to the Liverpool Echo. In his letter (in full, below) he tells readers: ” However, what viewers may not have seen is that due to the unseasonably warm weather, all the jockeys had been told to dismount from their horses as soon as the race was over in order to allow handlers and vets to get water to the horses”.

Had viewers been told beforehand, or the BBC briefed to build it into the coverage as water was being sloshed around everywhere at the end, it would have done two things:

Helped explain to the uninitiated what was happening and why

Given the message that detailed planning had gone into the organisation of the race

A vital PR opportunity missed.

Tim Morris’s letter

ALL those who love racing and horses will have been saddened by the accidents which led to the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate during the Grand National this year.

It was distressing for all of us to watch – those involved in racing care deeply for their horses.

This care and concern is why horseracing has for many years worked closely with legitimate animal welfare charities, such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. However, racing is a sport with risk, and the Grand National is the most testing race in Great Britain. Racing is open and transparent about this risk and works hard to reduce it. 

 TV viewers saw several welfare measures in action at this year’s race. For the first time, two fences were bypassed to minimise the risk of further accidents and run-outs were introduced so that those horses that had lost their riders could run around fences rather than jump them. Viewers will also have seen the winning jockey, Jason Maguire, jump off after the race and his horse, Ballabriggs, cooled with water. However, what viewers may not have seen is that due to the unseasonably warm weather, all the jockeys had been told to dismount from their horses as soon as the race was over in order to allow handlers and vets to get water to the horses

In addition, Mr Maguire was banned for five days for exceeding the strict limits which the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the sport’s regulator in Great Britain, places on the number of time he could use his whip. We will certainly be reviewing our rules to ensure that we have the balance right between appropriate use of the whip and stopping unacceptable use.

 Not everyone supports racing, and Animal Rights activists such as Animal Aid are entitled to their views. The BHA believes that the overwhelming majority of the British public do not subscribe to this view, and want to see racing continue.  We know the public also expects racing to do everything in its power to reduce risk to horses. The BHA is listening and is determined to ensure that this happens. 

Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare, British Horseracing Authority

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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’.

The Grand National: should the BBC stop slowmo replays of fallers in the best interests of racing?

The BBC’s coverage of the John Smith’s Grand National has become much more of a ‘people’s event’ over the past few years. The corporation does a fine job of informing and entertaining; a tough recipe to get right given the mix of highly knowledgeable fans and the once-a-year punters who form the vast majority.

Given racing’s ambitions to attract more people to the sport, I suspect that the BBC’s post-race analysis does those ambitions no favours.

Big broadcasters are pretty damn proud of the power of their software, and editors seem especially keen to highlight the ‘benefits’ of super-slow-motion.  Somersaulting horses, spilling brightly-silked jockeys across the Liverpool turf, is, I admit, very hard to resist from a drama viewpoint.  And no doubt many watch these shock and awe slowmo re-runs with that fascination that compels human beings to ‘rubber-neck’ at road accidents and street fights.

But, when the credits roll, how many once-a-year fans will be left with the impression that this is a fine sport at which to spend a day out?  Not a lot, I suspect.

Maybe the BHA has some figures.  Is there any noticeable upsurge in racecourse attendances in the weeks after the National?  Have surveys ever been done to test the effect Grand National coverage has on the image of the sport in general?

I accept that people want to know ‘where your money went’.  But couldn’t the BBC utilise its brilliant technology in creating an entertaining virtual re-run offering a much ‘softer’ summary of where horses left the race?  Keep the live footage for all the best bits of the race and show them as often, and from as many angles as you like, but please, BBC, stop concentrating on replays of fallers.

Show them once, if you must, at normal speed.  Frustrating as this might be to your ‘creatives’, you’d be doing the racing industry a considerable service.