Updated: May 7
The Grand National is a National Hunt horse race held annually at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, England. First race was held in 1839, it has a distance of about 4 miles and 2½ furlongs (4 miles 514 yards (6.907 km)), with horses jumping 30 fences over two laps of the course. It is the most profitable jump race in Europe, it had a prize fund of £1 million in 2017. The race is popular amongst a lot of people who wouldn't normally watch or bet on horse racing and makes national news each year for good and bad.
The course for the Grand National has 30 jumps with the highest being The Chair, which is over 5ft tall and many of the fences that the horses have to jump over have water filled ditches in front or behind them. This has effectively created an obstacle course which has been called "the ultimate test of horse and rider" with an estimated 500 to 600 million people watching the in over 140 countries.
A Cruel Sport
The animal welfare charity League Against Cruel Sports counts the number of horse deaths at 40 at the Grand National meet from the year 2000 to 2013, however, the official number that is published stands at 11. One death is too many but the discrepancy is significant.
"These events attract very large crowds and significant amounts of money placed in bets, by attendees enjoying the spectacle of horse racing... Horses are pushed further beyond their limits... the very fact that the horses are pushed to such limits makes these events dangerous for them." - The League Against Cruel Sports
There are reports that race-horses are being fatally injured and destroyed on a regular basis at race-courses all over the UK, including lesser known racing events. Many horses are being euthanised having suffered injuries that would not happen outside of a race course, such as tripping on a felled horse and sustaining broken bones.
Over years and decades, Aintree officials have worked with animal welfare organisations to reduce the severity of some fences and to improve veterinary facilities. In 2008, a new veterinary surgery was constructed in the stable yard. It has two large treatment boxes, an X-ray unit, video endoscopy, equine solarium, and sandpit facilities. Horses that need specialist care are transported by specialist horse ambulances, under police escort, to the nearby Philip Leverhulme Equine Hospital at the University of Liverpool at Leahurst. A mobile on-course X-ray machine has been bought to speed up diagnosis of leg injuries when horses are pulled up, and oxygen and water are available by the final fence and finishing post. There are five mobile vets available during the race who can start treatment of injured horses at the fence, with more vets stationed at the pull-up area, finishing post, and in the surgery. Kinda begs the question of why so many vets and all of that equipment is necessary if there is nothing wrong with this horse race, if it is safe.
Fences have been modified, made softer but still being "formidable obstacles". Ditches that couldn't be seen by the horse were removed from behind fences, the land was levelled after jumps so that horses land on flatter ground, changes were also made so that runners would approach fences more slowly. Other changes have been made to increase visibility for horses and prevent bunching, giving everyone more space.
Even with the changes horses still get injured, horses still die, but this doesn't stop the money from coming in, with companies like Ryan Air and National Express still spending their money to sponsor the event. PETA has set up a page with links to petition the sponsoring companies on Twitter to stop pumping money into this cruel sport. Many see this race and horse racing in general, as a bit of fun, but, for the horses, it is anything but.