Paul Stewart column: Grand National attracts its share of followers and critics

Jockey Davy Russell celebrates winning last year's Randox Health Grand National on Tiger Roll
Jockey Davy Russell celebrates winning last year's Randox Health Grand National on Tiger Roll

The Grand National 2019 takes place tomorrow and the debate will no doubt be centred on pleasure or pain.

We all – even if we may not be regular gamblers – seem to have a flutter on the biggest steeplechase worldwide; whether it’s the sweepstake at work or if a name takes your fancy.

A total of 43 horses have died in various races since the beginning of 2018.

The biggest UK racing event of the year, the Grand National, is thought to be one of the biggest killers of trained horses.

Indeed, many of these gorgeous creatures have died in the Grand National or have been so badly injured that they have had to be put down.

They have also died in other Aintree races, not to mention the dozens of other festivals that go on across Britain and Ireland.

But just how many have died in the Grand National up until now?

Each year, 40 horses – who have all passed a strict test of their abilities – compete in the big race on the Saturday of the Aintree event.

To enter, runners need to have to have been placed fourth or better in a previous recognised steeplechase over a distance of at least three miles.

The course is more than four miles long. It features hedges and fences, plus dips filled with water.

In all, there are 16 fences on the course, of which 14 are jumped twice.

Established in 2007, there is a website that keeps tabs on horse racing deaths around the world, and there have been 1,677 deaths since its foundation.

That is quite a large number, but since 2000, only 11 horses have died in the Grand National.

Seven died between 2000 and 2010, and four between 2010 and 2017.

The last two Grand National deaths came in 2012, when According To Pete was brought down and broke his upper leg, and Synchronised – who had just won at Cheltenham – ran free and broke its right leg. Both were subsequently destroyed.

Other Aintree races cause deaths as well; in 2016, six horses died as a direct result of the three-day carnival.

But in 2017, not a single horse died across the whole of Aintree. This is good publicity for the races more than anything else.

Estimates claim there is only one horse death in every 250 races but animal rights activists believe one death is too many; let alone 1,677 over a period of nine years.

PETA, the League Against Cruel Sports and other organisations are opposing the Grand National once again this year.

Last year, Elisa Allen of PETA said: “Hundreds of horses are killed on British racetracks every year and for nothing more than a bet.

“Countless others endure catastrophic breakdowns, fractured bones and broken spines, and thousands are slaughtered for dog food once they’re no longer considered profitable, including the foals bred for racing who don’t make the grade.”

I am torn; as an animal lover it’s very difficult to condone such a spectacle for pleasure.

However, I’ve also been hypocritical by betting on the race and even attending one of the showcases at Aintree.