AINTREE, ENGLAND // The Grand National is to be staged to a backdrop of real fear that if a horse dies on the hallowed turf here on Saturday afternoon, the 166th running of the ultimate thoroughbred marathon may well be the last as we know it.
Furious debate has raged all week as to the place that the legendary steeplechase over the idiosyncratic spruce fences has in modern society in Britain.
Numerous alterations to the course have been made since last year when Synchronised and According To Pete died in the race
It could be just the beginning, if animal rights activists get their way.
Since then, the four-and-a-half mile event has been shortened by 800 metres in an effort to slow the field as they approach the first fence of 30, while the core material used to build those fences is now a forgiving plastic rather than wood.
After Battlefront collapsed due to a heart attack at the track on Thursday, and Little Josh was put down yesterday however, the arguments have intensified.
Horsemen and women have put forward a united front, and their case is made all the more poignant with several of their colleagues lying in hospital as a result of injury.
Liam Treadwell, who won the National in 2009, was only just conscious when put in an ambulance yesterday having taken a tumbling fall on the National course from Regal D’Estruval.
Davy Russell, the Irish rider who rode with a collapsed lung during the Cheltenham Festival last month, suffered a shoulder injury when falling at Thurles in Ireland on Thursday. Tom Bellamy picked up a broken leg in a fall on the same day.
This has all occurred while John Thomas McNamara remains paralysed in a hospital bed, having endured fractured vertebrae at the Cheltenham Festival.
According to Animal Aid, the Animal Welfare charity, Battlefront became the 23rd horse in 13 years to die on the Grand National course.
It is an astonishing statistic. Yet it can also be taken out of context as of the 90,000 horses to race in Britain each year, 0.2 per cent of those die.
Horses perishing in the name of sport is certainly unpalatable but according to Katie Walsh, who rides Seabass, against her brother, Ruby, who partners On His Own, the favourite, it would pale into comparison should a jockey die.
"I hope to God there are no accidents this year, but these things happen, and they are horses at the end of the day," the most successful female rider in the race said in a magazine interview this week. "I don't mean that in a cruel way, but to see John Thomas McNamara get a horrible fall at Cheltenham, for the minute he's gone from the neck down, and that's a different deal altogether, in my eyes."
Thirty fences must be negotiated by the 40 runners, all of whom try to tackle the first fence at around 35mph. Beacher's Brook, with its 5ft 8ins drop, is the most fearsome obstacle of all, and The Chair, which is jumped only once, stands at 5ft 2ins.
Walsh finished third on Seabass last year and looks to have a major chance of improving on that performance to become the first woman to win the race. Her father, Ted, trains the horse and is seeking his second victory, after Papillon in 2000.
"The only way the result could have been much better was if she'd managed to win it," Ted Walsh said. "Katie gave him a smashing ride every step of the way. There was plenty of pressure there on a young girl and plenty of eyes on her, but she came home with a big smile. It's something she'll have for the rest of her life."
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