Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Grand Times at the Grand National – The Aintree Experience and Retraining of Racehorses

My wife and I always try to go to Aintree for the Grand National and for my money it is the best-organised NH meeting of the whole season- superb facilities, fabulous racing, and a real party atmosphere as 70,000 Scousers turn out in force, in their finery. It may be easy for the press to mock the excesses of “Ladies’ Day”, and it is certainly testimony to the tanning salon and tattoo parlour, but it really makes for a magnificent Aintree experience. It was also great to see the first £1m National, with excellent prize-money down to 10th. One of the real pleasures of the winter sport is that the “little man” can grab a huge prize. Charlie Longsdon in his blog summed it up really well: “Highlight of the Aintree meeting had to be Dr. Newland’s great win with Pineau De Re – he has 12 horses in training, and that is what the Grand National is all about. It is a fantastic story – something that could not happen in Flat racing. That’s why we love the National Hunt game. Everyone has a chance of having a superstar, and you do not have to have 150 horses in training and spend £100,000 to buy a great horse. Bring on the National in 2015!!!” Another of our trainers, Philip Hobbs, must certainly be thinking that – his Balthazar King, still improving at the age of 10, came 2nd and won £211,000. There was also a nice interview with Philip and Richard Johnson on Channel 4 – 16 years together. Although he didn’t say it on air, he has a lovely line: “If I don’t change my wife or my car very often, why should I change my jockey?” (Apologies [to Sarah] if I’ve misquoted, Philip – and I think I have – but that is the gist!)

There were several great results here for racing, not least Pineau De Re’s victory off the reasonable mark of 143 (certainly when Owners for Owners has a horse over 140 that stays forever, I know where we’re going). The excellent sponsor, marketing and branding for Crabbies created a very positive impression and they must be delighted with how the whole event unfolded, especially the avoidance of any controversy. There were no fatalities, and the way in which the core structure of the fences has changed for the better has been a most successful feature of Aintree for the last two years. It is also testimony to the leadership of Lord Daresbury who stepped down as Chairman at the meeting this year. When I first started going racing in the North I used to follow him as a rider. As Peter Greenall he was also the boss of the now-defunct brewery, Greenall Whitley (their bitter was often described as “only suitable to put on chips”), before selling the business off and concentrating on the hotels and leisure industry. One of the few real strategists in business and racing.

Finally, full marks again to the BHA for the way in which they took a proactive stance through the marquee and publicity for thehorsecomesfirst.com. They had a prominent and well-staffed stand by the parade ring and throughout the three days of the meeting, there was a concerted campaign to engage racegoers and raise awareness of the high standards of equine welfare in our sport. Proactivity like this is far better than responding reactively when there is a problem. Literature was given out containing such positive statistics as:

  • Over the last 15 years the equine fatality rate during racing has fallen by a third, from 0.3% to 0.2%.
  • The sport has invested over £25m in veterinary activities including research and education since 2000.
  • There are estimated to be 1m horses in the UK. Racehorses are the best looked-after 2%.
  • There are over 9,000 horses registered with Retraining of Racehorses active in other equine disciplines such as polo, showing, dressage and eventing.
  • Our sport employs over 6,000 people providing first-class care and attention to the 14,000 horses in training.

Finally on the statistics front, there was a very interesting piece of information based on a study by Liverpool University which found that 62% of “traumatic injuries” (ranging from grazes to fractures) suffered by a sample of leisure and competition horses occurred when turned out in a paddock, compared to only 13% during ridden exercise. This certainly confirms my own experiences – I tend to be more worried when horses are on their summer holidays turned out in a field, than when they are being carefully looked after in their boxes in a yard. I hope all our NH horses that are being turned out now for the summer take note of this!

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