Is the Grand National too dangerous to watch? ITV will be broadcasting the race for the first time this Saturday 8 April, but the most famous horse race in the world has had to face fierce critics in recent years.
Ahead of the race, former jockey and racing journalist Brough Scott and sports writer Simon Barnes argue the case for and against.
Simon Barnes: Why I won’t be watching The Grand National
Great sporting events normally unite the nation: so much so that in 2002 more than five million of us stayed up past midnight to watch curling. The Olympic Games, the World Cup, the big annual set pieces like the Boat Races and Wimbledon: if you have a taste for sport you mostly watch and enjoy.
No one says that Wimbledon should be banned. But the Grand National has become a great event that divides. It’s not even possible to discuss it. It’s one of those personal frontiers, a decision made on deep, pre-rational grounds. It’s not about what you happen to believe, it’s about the sort of person you happen to be.
So if you want a calm week, don’t bring up the Grand National in conversation. Talk about Brexit.
Is it cruel, though? Well, the life of a racehorse is pretty good. If you were a factory-farmed cow or a battery chicken, you’d fancy a swap: comfort, great food, good company, high standard of care, an hour’s fulfilling work a day and, every now and then, the heady excitement of race day.
You can’t make a horse jump if it doesn’t want to, and believe me, I’ve tried. Jumping requires a certain willingness from the horse – and to sit on a willing horse as it takes a jump with all the enthusiasm in its body is as rich a thing as I’ve experienced.
And in the Grand National they jump all right. I remember the impossible relentlessness of Red Rum, three-time winner, a horse that came close to taking the chance out of the most chancy event in sport.
I remember Foinavon, miles behind, taking the lead when every horse ahead fell, winning at 100 to one. I remember Tied Cottage, carrying my money, recklessly trying to hurdle Becher’s Brook at a flat gallop and taking an awful spinning fall.
I also remember the day I said no, that’s it, I’ve had enough. That was in 2011 when two horses – Ornais and Dooneys Gate – died in the course of the race.
Perhaps it was the aerial shot of the horses racing past those sad green tarpaulins. I made a half-hearted attempt to watch the following year, when two more horses died, the most recent fatalities in the Grand National. But it wasn’t really the deaths that made me switch off. Watching all those horses fall no longer amused me.
Race organisers have done plenty to make the course safer. After 1989 (two deaths) they lowered some of the fences and levelled the ground on the landing side of Becher’s, making it – to use a good horsey word – less trappy. A fairer test.
They’ve also worked up the entry conditions, restricting the race to horses who can really jump. It’s a
lot less mad than it used to be, and less dangerous to both horses and riders, though it is still dangerous. And aren’t all sports better when there’s the spice of danger? There are two kinds of opinions. There’s one in which you have an urgent need to convince everyone else and then ban all the things you hate. And there’s another in which you are happy for others to believe something different.
Plenty of people love the National and despise those who don’t as sentimental wimps. Others want the Grand National banned forever. I’m in neither party, though I’d weep no tears if the race went. Your choice, dear reader, your choice.
Me, I’ll give the race a miss. Take a spin round the countryside on my horse instead.
Brough Scott: why the Grand National is one of TV’s greatest spectacles
The Grand National is among the most exciting, demanding and yes, dangerous challenges in sport. It’s also unique in its responsibility. Because it’s you and your horse.
It’s now 52 years since I lined up at Aintree and, if you really want to know, I went to Walton Hospital and my horse, Time, cantered away scot-free and ended his days in happy retirement with Harry Llewellyn, who had won Olympic gold in show jumping at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
I have been to just about every Grand National since that 1965 disaster and still find it the most thrilling event of the year. For this is one of those tests that is an absolute: 40 horses, 30 fences, over four-and-a-half miles of the same ground over which the race has been galloped for more than 170 years.
It is not as extreme as it was. There was once a stone wall and a ploughed field to cross, and since my time the heavy drops have been eliminated on the jumps down to Becher’s and all the fences – even the big ditch over which Time and I somersaulted – have been made more forgiving.
The daunting nature of the challenge is part of its attraction. Those riders are the climbers looking up to the top of the mountain or, in the most collective example I have experienced, the thousands of runners making their way to the start of the London Marathon. Before the day is out they will have been through the mincer in search of their dream. It will be hard. But it could be glorious.
The Grand National riders have all that, and something else. It’s not only their legs that are going to stretch – it’s those beneath them. For when it clicks, riding a horse over those big Aintree fences is as good as it gets. You are in a pack of half-ton athletes drilling down to a five-foot obstacle at 30 miles an hour and your own mind and body is trying to inhabit every fibre of the being beneath you to perfect the leap ahead.
Of course it doesn’t always work. I remember chaos and loose horses and a struggle to stay upright on the run towards Becher’s, but then dream becoming reality as the mighty posse drummed back towards the stands and Time flew over the huge Chair fence as if it was a hay bale. Everything was possible.
Four fences later it wasn’t. Not all horses are as lucky as Time was. Not all jockeys are as fortunate as me. For the Grand National cannot be a risk-free zone; a “safe Grand National” is the ultimate oxymoron.
It’s the danger that brings responsibility for the riders and in particular for the horses. Racing is what they have been bred and reared and trained for but it’s we who choose to send them to the test.
Simon Barnes might not be watching, but I will. I think the ordeal, although still hugely demanding, is as fair as it can be and the only change I would make is to adopt the instant dismount and wash down of the horse at the finish.
Simon writes like an Olympian and is an accomplished and skilful rider as well as highly congenial companion. But I have been around horses all my life and I defer to no one, not even to him, in my affection for them. His view should be respected but I prefer mine.
Life is too full of “safety first”. The Grand National stands as the greatest challenge in our game. Let’s take it.
The Grand National is live on ITV this Saturday from 2pm
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news