Brough Scott: Why Aintree can never be a risk-free zone [H&H VIP]

  • We couldn’t take it now.

    One hundred years on, we couldn’t all march off laughing and singing to war as everyone did in August 1914, and it’s hard to think that racing could survive what happened at Aintree that April.

    Only three had got round in the 1913 Grand National. A year later Bill Smith and Sunloch adopted the famous orders “go to the front and keep improving your position”. At the finish, he was still eight lengths clear with only three others still standing.

    Imagine the outcry if this happened on Saturday — the inquest, the sackcloth and ashes, the calls for abolition or at the very least yet another complete course redesign. Back in 1914 no one seemed to have bothered much.

    Tom Tyler — Sunloch’s Leicestershire owner and trainer — had backed him at 100-1. The horse survived to run in the 1919 National, which was won by Poethlyn, the top weight and hot favorite ridden by Ernie Piggott, grandfather of Lester.

    The only complaint in 1914 was that the jockeys on the second and third had given the leader too much rope.

    This was probably true, as Bill and Sunloch were 20 lengths clear at Becher’s first time round and a whacking 40 a circuit later. Shades of Crisp and Richard Pitman miles ahead of Red Rum and Brian Fletcher in 1963.

    But Sunloch was not Crisp. He was a £300 buy whose first owner got arrested in the winner’s enclosure at Nottingham and whose form was moderate enough to carry 9st 7lb, not Crisp’s 12st.

    What’s more, with a 100 years of respect, Bill Smith was not exactly Richard Pitman, who in 1963 was first jockey to Fred Winter and had just got inched out of the Gold Cup on Pendil.

    True, Bill was to become champion jockey in war-torn 1915. He had another moment of unhappier fame two years later when his mount Limerock did a Devon Loch style slip-up yards from the post in the substitute Grand National at Gatwick.

    But in 1914 he was still an unsung pilot, whose only Aintree experience was going clear the previous April only to get buried after Valentine’s.

    Then, the second and third, Trianon III and Lutteur III, had 11st 9lb and 12st 6lb respectively. Hardly surprising that jockeys Hawkins and Carter said, “Don’t let’s chase him.”

    Today’s conditions would not permit Lutteur to carry so much weight. Five years earlier, when he had cruised up in the 1909 National, our current rules would have barred him for being only five years old.

    Yes it was different then. The fences were as straight and high as five-bar-gates and Bechers Brook was something you could drown in.

    There were no helmets, no back pads, no plastic rails, no air ambulance and your best hope of a painkiller was a swig of brandy and a piece of wood jammed between the teeth.

    There would be no vets following the field in Range Rovers ready to administer equine aid in seconds. For jockeys, the only concussion test was whether you could remember your name and your horse’s number.

    Of course, there was glory but, in today’s terms, it was the glory of ignorance. In so many ways we have bitten the apple of knowledge, yet in one important respect we have ignored it.

    Searching for a more acceptable spectacle than the three or four finishers of 100 years ago, we have adapted and lowered the fences and brought in medical and equine back up of the highest order.

    What we have ignored is that too often these changes — however necessary — have been done in the name of something that can never exist: a “safe Grand National”.

    Sending horses and riders out to race over 41/2 miles and jump 30 fences is never going to be a safe occupation, any more than is climbing a mountain.

    The Grand National is the day when racing invites the rest of the world in. It should be proud of what it is showing, not peddle the deceit that somehow the whole thing has been made “safe” and so any injuries can be held as proof that it has not yet been made safe enough.

    The truth is that Aintree — like the rest of the jumping game — can never be a risk-free zone for either man or horse. Nor should it pretend to be.

    Brough’s column was first published in Horse & Hound (3 April, 2014)