Opening Doors On National Proved a Vital Move

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Article by Julian Muscat originally featured in racingpost.com on Wednesday, April 10, 2013 

Plain bad luck. That was the view of racing diehards when two horses perished in each of the two Grand Nationals preceding this year’s running.

It happens, you know. It’s a high-risk sport in which horses occasionally die.

But the argument must also work in reverse. If you believed that, you must also believe this year’s glorious renewal owed everything to good fortune. No deaths, no obvious injuries, no distressing images. And all because Lady Luck happened to smile on Aintree.

Luck played its part, no doubt about that, but to trust entirely to it is to demean those whose foresight and knowledge have made the race a much safer institution without over-watering it.

From BHA officials who recognised the need for a clean start, via jockeys who accepted as much, through to Aintree officials prepared to grasp the nettle, the 2013 Grand National represented a triumph from the depths of adversity that stalked the preamble like a sinister shadow. It did not happen by chance.

The elements that combined to make it so have already been outlined in these pages. Every written word, both on deadline and after contemplation in subsequent days, rose up from the hearts of writers whose love for their sport shone through.

The same was true of every trainer, every jockey to speak in the build-up. And with due respect to events on the track, the real triumph of this year’s Grand National was the near-universal recognition among every interested party in racing that what had gone before was all too much.

It’s easier to see this if you are standing apart, just as it’s far easier to see the cause of other people’s problems than your own. Yet for all the love, for the devotion that binds racing folk together in impregnable packages, there was a collective understanding that something had to be done.

Racing could easily have closed ranks. Supporters of hunting did just that, and their intransigence cost them their sport. Only when it was too late did they realise they had handled the issue of public concern with scant respect for those who amplified it.

Racing responded differently to what became very acute public pressure. Rather than proceed like a bull in a china shop, it took a step back to reassess. In the process it showed a caring face, a willingness to listen, a desire to address public distress, rather than resorting to Harvey Smith’s infamous v-sign in the showjumping ring all those years ago.

This was manifestly the right approach. Aggression in defending your patch serves only to arm those mounting the assault. And in the end, many who started from the standpoint that the Grand National involved a gathering of people with intrinsically cruel motives will have had their assumptions dispelled.

Racing never did have anything to hide in the way it conducts itself. We all knew that, but others were starting to see it differently. It was time to respond by throwing open the doors rather than bolting them shut.

Lo and behold, those who entered racing’s house had some interesting observations to make. They made us aware of rising public discontent with uglier aspects of the Grand National. They made us concede that equine deaths shouldn’t be wholly attributed to bad luck. They made us look more closely at something we had taken for granted and implement change.

It was about time the landing side of Becher’s Brook was all but levelled off. And those wooden stakes around which the Aintree fences were built should have been uprooted long ago. The fences were certainly softer but, as Barry Geraghty noted, horses making mistakes were forfeiting their winning chance rather than crashing to earth.

That went down well with the 70,000 crowd because a pair of public-address announcements drew some of the biggest cheers of the day. The first came after one circuit, when 33 horses were still on their feet; the second came with the declaration that the 80-strong cast of horses and riders had all returned safely.

So alongside merited slaps on backs within the mood of self-congratulation, we must also take on board one more lesson from Saturday. Racing should never equate public concern with interference from people ignorant of the sport and discount it for that reason. These people are accurate barometers of the wider audience that make the Grand National the most famous race in the world.

Not all Grand Nationals will be as incident-free, of course, but Saturday’s renewal returned the race to the right path. It was a path the merits of which had become blurred to racing, but it has returned to focus in no small part because the wider public demanded it.

The race will endure to its global television audience of 600 million for as long as the racing community does not stray too far from that path.