Jonjo O’Neill had three reasons to wonder about the Grand National on Saturday. First, there was the tragic loss of Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised, not in the fall at Becher’s Brook, where he dumped jockey Tony McCoy on the ground for a second time during the afternoon, but in a second fall five fences later.
Secondly, there were the memories that he had been there before, 33 years ago. Then he had been the jockey on board Alverton, who like Synchronised had won the Gold Cup a few weeks earlier, and who also fell at Becher’s.
And thirdly, there was the agony of second placed finish for Sunnyhill Boy, who was beaten by a nose in the last stride in the closest ever finish to the race.
The reaction from connections to the loss of Synchronised was one of philosophical resignation. Frank Berry, racing manager for owner JP McManus said, “It's just of those things. The horse looked perfect when he got up from the fall and he galloped away and jumped away afterwards. When he was up and running again you'd be hoping he'd be fine afterwards, they usually are, but what happened and it was very sad. It's a sad day, particularly for everyone in Jackdaws (Castle, O'Neill's yard). He was always a popular horse in the yard, even before he won the Gold Cup. I don't want to say much more about it, it's just very sad."
It’s this dignified tone that should set the pattern for the proper consideration of whether any further changes should be made to the National course or conditions in the 355 days yet to elapse before the race takes place on 6 April next year. My view is that there shouldn’t be, but already there have been plenty of calls for further modifications, which, if implemented, would further diminish the unique nature of the race.
It’s no surprise to find the RSPCA at the head of the queue here. Chief Executive Gavin Grant called the deaths of Synchronised and According To Pete “totally unacceptable.”
David Muir, equine consultant for the charity set out what they would like to see done. "I think the Grand National has a future if it changes and makes the risk factors lower and more acceptable," Muir said. "If racing is to continue, racing must realise that people are concerned about horse fatalities on racecourses and the impetus to reduce the risk factor has to be greater. I have never been happy about drop fences, and Becher's is a drop fence. Yes, they have reduced it [the size of the drop] but it would appear horses still have difficulties coping on that fence. We'd love to see 40 finishers. The Grand National is a work in progress and we think we can get more finishers and a safer race."
The British Horseracing Authority, which under its new chief executive Paul Bittar is demonstrating a welcome measure of competence and common sense, set out a lengthy statement, the essence of which was that the safety record of the National needed to be judged over a period of time.
Of the events on Saturday he said, “We are reasonably advanced in the process of examining the incidents that led to the Synchronised and According To Pete being put down. While that process still needs to be completed, it is relevant to point out that although both horses lost their riders jumping Becher’s Brook, Synchronised galloped away from that fence seemingly without injury and then subsequently incurred a fracture to a hind leg when jumping riderless, while According To Pete was brought down by another horse on the second circuit.”
Channel 4 commentator Jim McGrath supported the view that a knee-jerk reaction would not be sensible. He said, “I think we need to sit back and reflect on and examine how the injuries occurred and whether there is anything more the Aintree executive, which has made huge strides in recent years with regard to horse welfare, could do to make it even more safer.”
In that deliberation, we should not forget that before the death of Dooneys Gate at Becher’s last year, that fence had not seen a fatality for over 10 years, and the overall level of fatalities in the National during the 200s was half that of the previous 10 years.