After Safety Improvements, No Horse Deaths at Grand National

Nowhere have the falls of the U.K.’s Grand National horserace been more famous than in Velvet Brown’s spectacular ride in MGM’s 1944 classic film "National Velvet." Masses of horses take 30 massive natural jumps nearly in unison, as the announcer lists the “horses down” over the loudspeaker.

In the real world, the Grand National has an infamous history of deadly falls, as horses hit hard jumps at top speed, crash into other horses, and rotate over the fall. In the past two years alone, two horses have died in each running of the annual race.

But in the 2013 renewal, held April 6 at Aintree Racecourse in Aintree, Merseyside, England, there were no equine deaths or injuries. Over the course of the race, there were just two horse falls and six unseated riders.

The event’s organizers and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) teamed up with researchers, trainers, veterinarians, and welfare organizations in 2011 and 2012 to create a safer environment for their equine athletes. Wooden jump cores were switched out for flexible plastic ones. Particularly low landing surfaces were raised. One jump was lowered. And the “toe boards” (orange line painted across the bottom of the jumps to help cue the horse for the jump) were made higher, according to Aintree Racecourse's website. The BBC also reported that the race was shortened to slightly under four-and-a-half miles.

World Horse Welfare (WHW) leaders approve the changes but are still hoping for fewer horses on the course in future runnings. “We are convinced that a meaningful reduction in the maximum number of runners is another legitimate and sensible step that should be trailed alongside the measured changes already introduced by Aintree and the BHA,” said WHW chief executive Roly Owers. “Combined, we believe that such a package of changes provide the best chance to further reduce risk, while doing nothing to diminish the race’s character, its challenge, or worldwide popularity.”

Despite the successful 2013 race, which was held on April 6, two horses died in other races on the same course with the same jumps in the days preceding the Grand National, according to the BBC.

“Racing wouldn’t exist without the jockeys and the horses that deliver what we believe to be the best show on earth,” states the Aintree website. “That’s why it’s essential that, as a sporting industry together, we are always looking for ways to protect the stars that are at the center of our much loved sport.”

The research and improvement project is ongoing.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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