For countless people in the UK, myself included, betting on the Grand National is a guilty pleasure. Last year I won what felt like a small fortune on the race, and skipped to the bank to deposit my £80 prize. Winning money provided enough of a distraction for me to happily overlook the cruelty that lies at the heart of horseracing. In my eyes, this annual foray into gambling was nothing more than a harmless flutter, and definitely not an endorsement of archaic brutality. What is more, I looked forward to the next time I could win such riches. Who doesn’t like free money?
In the hours leading up to this year’s Grand National, I was convinced I had the winning horse, and was getting excited about all the adventures I was to embark on with my soon-to-be healthy bank account. So, again, I turned off my brain, placed my bets, and took no notice when a friend told me that four horses had died over the weekend at Aintree racecourse.
It was not until the race was over, as dejection over my inevitable loss set in, that the bad thoughts started to percolate and shame began to rear its ugly, equine head. I could not stop thinking that, in essence, those four horses had died for a nation’s guilty pleasure. I then learnt that a fifth horse had died. It was becoming clear that there is no such thing as free money, and that horses pay with their lives.
In an attempt to banish this disquieting guilt I looked for reasons why betting on the Grand National might not be so bad. It is true that over the past decade the British Horseracing Authority has put measures in place to protect horses. The Grand National fences have been lowered and jockeys are no longer allowed to whip the horses as violently. Advocates of the sport eagerly state that the annual fatality rate has decreased from 0.3% to 0.2% over the last 15 years.
Nevertheless, with 90,000 horses racing per year, this indicates that 180 horses die annually for sport in the UK – not exactly a figure to be proud of. Furthermore, the Grand National is particularly dangerous. The 4.5-mile race consists of 30 fences to be jumped by the 40 competitors – the length, crowding, and break-neck speed make it extremely unsafe. Whilst no horses died during the main race this year, the five horses that perished during the week were all injured on the main Aintree course.
Continuing my search for absolution, another justification crossed my mind: the idea that it is a unifying tradition. If only for ten minutes the entire United Kingdom can sit and revel in the excitement of the event. “Go on, darling,” said Father, “pick a horse!” And this year’s race was exciting as we saw a 19-year-old jockey win.
But when looking more broadly, the warm image of a family crowded around the TV fades. In fact, the event is extremely divisive. Animal rights groups have likened the race to Spanish bullfighting and have long called for it to be scrapped. Andrew Tyler, Director of Animal Aid, described it as “perversely evil,” and this year’s meeting saw protesters brandishing placards emblazoned with the slogan “You bet, they die.”
Betting is the lifeblood of horseracing. But in reality, there is no such thing as a harmless flutter. The world of horseracing claims to cherish these animals but the horses are a means to a selfish end. In the not-too-distant future, we will doubtless look back and think ‘How did we allow this to happen?’ It’s clear that we must ask ourselves these questions now, despite the discomfort.
Image credit: Flickr: Paul