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What's to be done about the Grand National?

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[caption id="attachment_121543" align="alignnone" width="640"]Image: David Cohen
Image: David Cohen

I think we're probably agreed that, in the 21st century, animals should not be made to suffer for sport. We don't tolerate cockfights or dogfighting, and bear-baiting has been illegal in England since 1835.

According to the Animal Welfare Act of 2006, animal abuse is punishable by a fine of up to £20,000 and 51 weeks in prison.

Why then, every year, do we as a proud nation parade to Aintree, paying up to £95 per ticket, to witness 40 horses pitted against each other in a race that is potentially lethal even to the most skilful jockey and obedient stallion?

Despite trying to understand and appreciate the significance of the event's heritage, I can't fathom a rational answer.

According to The Independent, in 2014, fewer than half of the horses competing crossed the finish line. Some collapse, some go lame, others take flight in terror, and others still are injured or killed. The fences are too high for safe competition and designed to be difficult to manoeuvre.

The course is brutal (16 hurdles across almost 4.5 miles), and horses are known to be anxious in competition; as Caroline Allen writing for The Express clarifies 'Horses do not choose to run. They have a strong inbuilt "flight" mechanism, so the fact they run fast and jump over obstacles simply cannot be taken to mean they enjoy it.'

Two horses died during this year's weekend festival. They were forced to run, and they were killed. According to Animal Aid, on average, one horse dies for every 50 entered into the Grand National.

So how is this sport still deemed acceptable, and even entertaining? I find it fundamentally shocking that spectators continue to 'ooh' and 'aah' as jockeys are flung from their collapsing steeds, at horses breaking their necks and legs and getting crushed under the hooves of their terrified 'rivals', at scenes of such chaos, abuse, and death that in practically any other context would stun us into silence.

Unfortunately the Grand National's cruel influence isn't reigned in once the winner is determined and the unlucky few, or often rather half of animals are escorted away, traumatized, broken, bruised, lame, bleeding, or lifeless. Allen further reports 'There is a common misconception that the top racehorses live a life of luxury', when in reality they are treated rather like "battery horses".

Controlled breeding, involving the administration of hormones and sedatives in mares to force cooperation, is common. Foals often don't make it past their second year due to chronic inbreeding.

Horses have restricted space in which to live and are known, according to Allen, to develop behaviours similar to those demonstrated by animals in captivity; they become agitated and anxious in their unnatural environment. The horse racing industry is a factory of cruelty, and it is appalling that it continues to profit today.

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, has condemned the abuse and threatened to conduct a review of the sport, alongside that of greyhound racing and other animal welfare issues in the event of a parliament with Green influence. The Guardian reports, when 'asked repeatedly whether a ban of a racing event would be a potential outcome of any review, she [Bennett] declined to explicitly rule it out.'

So what's to be done about The Grand National?

Animal Aid proposes that we reform the race in order to reduce the risk of injury and damage being done to the animals; to make the course safer we should demand that the number of horses running is drastically reduced (from 40 to fewer than 30), and enforce new restrictions on fence height and the number of fences per mile, amongst many other welfare improvements and safety procedures.

But even once reformed to the best standard that it can be, The Grand National will suffice to be little better than 'a typically hazardous jumps event - the kind that saw, in total, 145 horses die on British National Hunt racecourses in 2013'.

So, I suppose, the question remains: why is that we continue to believe that this cruelty is worthwhile?

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