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Monday, 16 April 2012

It's still a Grand National

Not sure I should get involved in this one. After all, this is mainly a theatre blog. But the horses often intrude. And no way more than with my ugly mug sharing a treasured moment with one of Jonjo O’Neill’s superstars. You don’t get much closer to racing at the highest level than that. Besides, as I have said many times, there is more drama in horseracing than in half a dozen productions at Stratford. Tragedy and triumph run side by side in a quicksilver fashion that even Olivier and Gielgud at their best would find bewildering.

Last Saturday’s Grand National had it all. Gold Cup winner ditching his jockey during the parade, fun with an elastic tape for the start of the world’s highest profile race, the closest ever finish, only a nose separated the first two, and a female jockey getting into the first three. Too much drama, old boy. Go away and revise the script. I wish we could because the biggest drama was the death of two beloved horses. According to Pete, small owner and unfashionable trainer, is what racing is all about. Bred for fun and winner of lots of handicaps. Super jumper, cruelly brought down when going well. That was bad enough but then we had Synchronised. Remember him? The Gold Cup winner who played up at the start. Ditched the world’s best jockey at Bechers and, five fences later, fell again. Fatally.

Ten million folks watched it on the BBC and umpteen million others saw it all over the world. Forget the result. Two horses died. High profile ones. The race is too dangerous. Stop it. Ban it. We may tune in for the excitement. But we don’t want too much. Fences too difficult, race too long, runners too many. Distil it all and you finish up with a two runner race on the flat over half a mile. That is the illogical conclusion. Horses die in the paddock, horses die when put out to grass, horses die when being trained. They also die at Plumpton and Towcester. It is the downside of racing. Nobody likes it but if you love racing, as I do, you have to accept it. Training and racing horses has its risks. If society is not prepared to take that risk then the sport is dead.

I sincerely mean that last statement because the serious antis won’t stop at the Grand National. Its high media profile, daunting fences, and large field is merely the beginning. Get that knocked off the agenda and a five runner novice chase at  Wetherby won’t be far behind. Cruelly, the death of the Gold Cup winner played into their hands. They couldn’t buy such publicity. For many years, because of my job, I regularly went to the Cheltenham Festival. Sixty thousand people poured through the gates for a day of excitement and pleasure. About fifteen regularly stood outside holding up their condemning placards. With the death of Synchronised those fifteen voices are getting worryingly louder. And they know it.

I don’t do show jumping. It has no appeal to me. Hickstead and Burleigh are foreign countries. A few years ago we regularly heard about fatalities at their events. Mainly riders, more newsworthy, but no doubt horses as well. I didn’t call for it to be banned. I know nothing about their sport. And neither do the once a year punters and viewers who tune in to our most high profile race. So leave us alone. The logic of your argument, as someone better than me said, is that the only horses we will ever get to see is in a zoo.

For anyone interested I backed the winner, Neptune Collanges, and coined a tidy sum. Did not stop me crying at the death of Synchronised and dear old Pete. I would give every penny back for that not to have happened. But I can just about live with the death of a horse, racing is after all the only reason they exist, not sure if I could cope with the death of racing. And that seems to be where we are going.

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