Belfast Telegraph

National tragedy should not rein in spirit of racing

If you think jockeys and trainers are cynical about racehorses being killed, you're mistaken. Ask Tony McCoy and Jonjo O'Neill, says Robert Fenton

It takes something extraordinary to stop 16-times champion jockey Tony McCoy from fulfiling his riding engagements on any given day. Such is the iron nature of the Moneyglass man, it has been said that only death would stop him making every effort to be in the saddle.

And it was a death that must surely have been a prime factor in AP not going to Ffos Las on Sunday - the official reason being that McCoy was feeling sore.

No doubt he was, both physically and mentally, after his fall on the ill-fated Synchronised at Becher's Brook in Saturday's Grand National. The demise of the Gold Cup winner, along with According To Pete, took much of the limelight from the greatest finish in National history - a nose-hair separating Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy.

Hardened cynics think those in racing - especially jockeys - see horses as merely a tool of the job. If a horse meets its end, it's just a case of moving on to the next race.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The bond between owners, trainers and riders and their horses is a loving, caring relationship.

And that's what makes one commentator's callous blaming of owner JP McManus and trainer Jonjo O'Neill for Synchronised's fate both ill-judged and misinformed.

The view was that a Gold Cup winner was too good to risk. But why not - if he had a good chance of winning and was fit and ready for the race? In fact, Synchronised was always seen as more of a National horse than a Gold Cup winner.

One thing is for sure: neither JP, AP nor Jonjo would have entertained the prospect if they had any doubts. A glimpse at the distraught nature of JP's family in the saddling enclosure once the news came through that Synchronised had broken a leg and had to be put down was all too evident.

Just before that, joy was etched on O'Neill's face as he thought his other horse, Sunnyhillboy, had held on for victory. But that quickly turned to frustrating disappointment when the result of the photo-finish was announced.

The mood then blackened to despair when Synchronised did not come back. It also opened the wounds of 1979, when Jonjo rode Gold Cup winner Alverton, only to come down at Becher's second time round. Alverton, too, did not come back.

McCoy immediately gave up his next ride in the bumper race and followed up the day after, as he, too, was affected by the demise of a horse he loved, admired and respected as a battler who always gave his all - a reflection of himself.

The death of two horses, like last year, has thrown the Grand National back into the eye of controversy, with those wanting further changes to the nature of the race, or even its abolition.

It's an easy target for protesters, who want to eliminate risk and destroy what's an important part of sport's rich tapestry.

No other race generates the publicity, or garners the attention of the masses, both sporting and non-sporting. That's why there were queues outside bookmakers' shops from early on Saturday morning. So many caught up in the excitement want to have at least one bet in the year. It would be wrong to deny them that opportunity.

Of course, the safety of horses is paramount. That's why there have been many changes to the National (not all for the better): fences have been made easier and that has encouraged horses to go faster, while there is now talk of cutting the numbers down from 40 to lessen, in theory, interference and horses being brought down.

No doubt that will be looked at, as 30 or 35 might not make much difference and only 27 ran in 1996 when Rough Quest won without taking anything away from the spectacle.

No matter what is done, risk will never be removed, but there is the danger of destroying what is a treasured event. In the last 50 years of the National, 36 horses have been killed and there have been only 11 deaths from 500 runners since 2000.

Last year in Britain, 181 met their fate on the track from around 95,000 runners. Should all racing, therefore, be banned? Of course not. While finding the loss of According To Pete hard to take, trainer Malcolm Jefferson remains a firm supporter of the National and believes it's time to stop tinkering with the conditions of the race.

"It could have happened anywhere, but because it was the National everyone saw it," he said. "They can't carry on making changes.

"In my eyes, the fences should be bigger to slow them down. If they were a foot higher, Pete would still have jumped them.

"Now they are trying to please everybody and you can't. People say make the field smaller, but what if next year another two die? Then they'll want 20 runners."

Would the National benefit from further change?

There is always room for improvement - if justified - but one thing that must not be done is making more alterations for the sake of it in a bid to pander to a minority who have neither love nor interest in racing, nor any understanding that horses are bred to race.

And that brings into play a high percentage of risk.

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