Risk of fatalities at Grand National is too high, says academic

Published: 5 April 2011 at 12:49

Anglia Ruskin lecturer calls for greater debate of issues surrounding horse welfare

Dr Mark Kennedy, Senior Lecturer in Animal Welfare at Anglia Ruskin University, believes the current level of fatalities during the Grand National meeting is “morally unacceptable” and more should be done to improve horse welfare at Aintree.

An estimated 600 million people worldwide will tune in on Saturday to watch the 161st running of the Grand National, with the four-mile four-furlong marathon the centrepiece of the three-day meeting on Merseyside.

However, last year saw four horse fatalities at the Aintree course. Pagan Starprincess fell in the Silver Cross Handicap Hurdle and was destroyed with spinal injuries, Schindlers Hunt was destroyed after fracturing a leg in the Melling Chase while Prudent Honour and Plaisir D’Estraval both broke their necks and died in the Topham Chase. Five horses died in 2009 including Hear The Echo, who collapsed during the Grand National itself.

Dr Kennedy said:

“The risk of death in flat racing is approximately one fatality per 1,000 horse starts and for steeplechases, such as those at the Aintree meeting, it is around six per 1,000 starts. On average then in the larger jump meetings, such as the three-day Grand National, we can expect around three horse fatalities.

“Humans are notoriously bad at understanding risk. An analogy that might be easier for us to relate to is to consider an individual driving their car every day of the year.

“According to government statistics from around 10 years ago, the number of human fatalities per 1,000 car journeys is 0.00004.  If the risk to the driver was the same as the Grand National – six deaths in 1,000 – then you would be lucky to still be alive after six months.  I doubt many of us would accept this and yet we think it is acceptable for horses to be exposed to these risks.”

Dr Kennedy, who lectures on Anglia Ruskin’s BSc courses in Animal Behaviour & Welfare and Equine Studies, added:

“Last year the Australian state of Victoria banned jump racing and South Australia is now the only state where it is still legal.

“Here in the UK, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) record all racecourse injuries and fatalities, analyse them for contributing factors and then make recommendations. For the Grand National course the BHA have changed a number of fences and stipulated the type of ground conditions the race must be run on, but there is still significant risk.

“What we need is greater debate about what is going on here in the UK. On the one hand you have the abolitionists that state that no rate of fatality is acceptable while on the other hand you have people, no doubt including millions who will have a flutter on Saturday, who consider it a sport which entertains and which contributes to the culture of this country. 

“The only way of reducing risks even further is to discuss the subject more openly. My own view, however, is that it cannot be morally acceptable that we can statistically expect the carting away of three dead horses every time we have a major multi-day jump meeting like the Grand National.”