Aintree racecourse, Liverpool, 1977: Red Rum won his third Grand National and the TV, radio and newspaper coverage (no internet or blogs) went ecstatic at the feat that he had achieved. History was made and I was there to see it. After the big race I walked the course and picked up pieces of the famous Becher's Brook fence that had been kicked out by the horses, to take home that evening as a memento. What I didn't comprehend was that unlike me, many horses would not be returning home. In the race there were falls galore with horses taking tumbles at nearly every fence. Nobody thought to ask of their fate. And neither did I.
My grandfather was a 'turf accountant' at Aintree and met my Nan - Florrie Brooks, a Knotty Ash resident - at a race meeting there. They influenced my formative years in the 1960s on a diet of horse racing and meals of meat and boiled veg. Eventually, I, too, entered the world of the bookmaker, spending a brief period working a leading firm. Two years on from Red Rum's famous 1977 victory I chalked up the result of the race on the bookie's board; naming the winner and the placed horses and their starting prices (SPs). As the doors closed on the busiest betting day of the year, staff celebrated the fleecing of the punters as yet another Grand National favourite was literally 'turned over'. He (Alverton) lay dead on the Aintree turf at the foot of Becher's Brook. But no-one reported that to us.
Time moved on and, as it does, things change, as with the race itself. It is a far, far cry from its humble beginnings in the 1830s. Deaths in the past fifty years have skyrocketed, yet traditionalists who have not accurately researched its past, believe that it should not be touched - let alone banned.
Red Rum's popularity saved the race in the 1970s after it hit an all-time low with the course coming close to being sold off for housing development. Time is again turning against this modern-day Circus Maximus. In this instance, the public consciousness has been pricked, as the suffering of the horses has grown increasingly evident.
I too have changed. Once an ardent racegoer and punter, I suddenly jumped my own big fence when I came to realise no-one in racing gave a flying fig about the horses who were sacrificed - not only in the Grand National - but almost on a daily basis on racecourses up and down the country in the pursuit of easy money and entertainment. I ventured into the world of animal rights, joining several groups whose goal was to abolish the Grand National. Around that time, one of the biggest upsets in the history of the race occurred, when, in 1993, activists accessed the course and held up the start of the race.
Amid the panic, half of the horses set off on what was a false start; the race was declared void. The aftermath was unique to the race in that no horses were killed and bookmakers had to pay back all of the £75million in bets staked! The Sunday Telegraph 4 April 1993 declared: 'When Emily Davison threw herself under one of the King's horses at the Derby in 1913 in the cause of votes for women, she was fatally injured, but the race was run. Yesterday at Aintree, the greatest steeplechase in the world was destroyed by animal rights activists, who succeeded beyond their wildest hopes.'
In 2000 the campaign against the Grand National took on a professional footing when Animal Aid's Director, Andrew Tyler, took up the mantle to run a dedicated campaign against the exploitation of horses in racing. From that point on the front page celebratory headlines of Grand National winners were replaced with shocking images of dying horses; none more so, than that of Synchronised in 2012, when history repeated itself.
That year, Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised, like Gold Cup winner Alverton in 1979, was forced to confront the now publicly infamous Aintree obstacles. Synchronised was reluctant to take part and broke loose from the starting tape. Remounted and compelled to run, he too became a Grand National statistic. Falling at Becher's Brook and running loose he smashed a hind leg at a ditch fence further down the course. Learning lessons from the past should have been easy for Jonjo O'Neill, as he was the jockey of Alverton in 1979, and in 2012 he was the trainer of Synchronised. Synchronised was destroyed and hid from view in 2012 alongside fellow victim the diminutive outsider, According To Pete. In '79, Alverton's body was for an hour on open display for anyone who cared to see. He - the finest jump race horse in the country - was simply loaded onto the knackerman's open tractor trailer. There his still and silent half-ton athletic body was poked and prodded by inquisitive children who had climbed onto the trailer for some fun - just like the adults were having in the distant stands.
At 5.15pm on Saturday, 40 horses will face the starting tape in the 2016 Grand National. They're there because of punters' money that will make the bookies, promoters and the horses' connections potentially rich. The horses get nothing out of it - only fear and a serious risk of imminent death. If you're thinking of having a dip in the annual sweepstake or a trot down to the bookies on the morning of the race, please think again. Aside from the horses in the race, horse sanctuaries up and down the country are facing a crisis with thousands of unwanted horses - many of them ex-racehorses - in need. Your money could really help them.
Animal Aid Horse Racing Consultant, Dene Stansall.
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