London, UK - Organisers of the Grand National have conceded that the future of the iconic horse race could be under threat if more horses are killed during this year's event amid calls from animal welfare groups for the race to be banned.
The Grand National, which takes place on Saturday, has been a traditional fixture of the British sporting calendar since the race was first run at Liverpool's Aintree racecourse in 1839.
Even Britons with no interest in gambling typically bet on the race or take part in informal sweepstakes, with bookmakers estimating that about $750m is staked on the outcome.
The famous steeplechase, which organisers say draws a global television audience of 600 million people, is considered the ultimate test in jump racing, pitting 40 horses against 30 fences over a gruelling distance of almost six-and-a-half kilometres.
The Aintree course is also notorious for its high rate of attrition, with most horses failing to finish, and many falling spectacularly in the overcrowded early stages of the race.
But the death of a horse on the first day of the three-day Aintree meeting and the deaths of two horses in each of the past two editions of the National, including last year's favourite Synchronised, have brought questions over the safety and ethics of the race to the fore.
Battlefront, ridden by Katie Walsh, collapsed and died during a shorter race on the National course on Thursday. While most deaths are associated with falls and collisions, initial reports suggested the horse had suffered a heart attack.
Walsh, who last year took third to become the National's best placed female finisher, earlier in the week had been the highest profile figure in the sport to speak out in defence of the race, telling the Radio Times magazine that race horses were treated “better than some children”.
“I hope to God there are no accidents this year, but these things happen, and they are horses at the end of the day,” she had said.
Writing on Twitter on Thursday after Battlefront's death, Walsh said: "Very sad to lose Battlefront today. We had many great days and he was a great teacher. He was a gent and I will miss him very much!!"
In an effort to reduce the dangers, Aintree has made several changes to this year's course, replacing the traditional timber core of the spruce-covered fences with less solid plastic frames, moving the start line away from the noise of the grandstands and increasing provision for the catching of riderless horses that have unseated their jockeys.
'Brutal' selling point
But Andrew Tyler, director of the Animal Aid campaign group, said parts of the course still remained lethally dangerous; especially the infamous Becher's Brook leap, the scene of two of the fatal falls of the past two years.
“The selling point of the Grand National has always been the spectacularly brutal manner in which it fells horses. That's the tradition, that's the selling point,” Tyler told Al Jazeera.
"The statistics show a high level of risk to the horses. If the changes to the course have reduced the level of risk that is very good news indeed. But we will have to wait until Saturday to see if they have had that impact."
- Mark Kennedy, World Society for the Protection of Animals
Changes to the Aintree course were welcomed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), which works with the racing industry to improve welfare. But it also called for further changes to Becher's Brook and a reduction of the number of horses in the field.
Nigel Payne, a spokesman for Aintree Racecourse, said that welfare had become a major issue for jump racing in the past decade and admitted that the Grand National was under greater scrutiny than ever before.
He said organisers had even urged jockeys to slow down in the frantic approach to the first fence. More than 50 per cent of falls occur in the first 90 seconds of the race, he said.
“It's a strange irony that people like me tend to look at what's happening at the back of the race rather than at the front,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking before Battlefront's death.
“You're so worried about the whole future of the race and we are in the limelight, we know that. If we have a lovely, wonderful, trouble-free National, I don't think the campaign groups would be particularly pleased. But for me that would be the ultimate: a great race, no injuries and the tradition continues.”
But Mark Kennedy, head of science at the World Society for the Protection of Animals, also speaking to Al Jazeera before Battlefront's death, had said it was statistically unlikely that the three-day Aintree meeting would pass without any fatalities.
Based on a study of horse racing deaths, Kennedy said the likelihood of a horse dying in steeplechasing racing was about six in a thousand, compared to about one per thousand flat racing starts.
According to the same odds, someone driving their car every day would be lucky to be alive after six months, he said. “The statistics show a high level of risk to the horses,” Kennedy told Al Jazeera. “If the changes to the course have reduced the level of risk that is very good news indeed. But we will have to wait until Saturday to see if they have had that impact.”
But Tyler said that efforts to made the Grand National course safer did not address wider welfare concerns about the horse racing industry.
He said Animal Aid aimed to persuade the public of the need to end commercial racing altogether.
“It is an inherently exploitative industry that commodifies these animals and, sentiment aside - and there is an amount of sentiment from certain quarters when horses die - this is an industry that is pretty ruthless.”
"The organisers face Saturday with their fingers crossed and a prayer on their lips. What kind of a sporting event is it where you have to hope that your leading characters are not going to die?"
- Andrew Tyler, Animal Aid campaign group
John McCririck, a veteran racing pundit and TV presenter, told Al Jazeera the sport had always evolved to minimise the dangers involved for horses and jockeys and that racing authorities had heeded concerns over safety.
He also said more could be done to promote animal welfare in the industry, such as banning the use of whips by jockeys.
But he said an element of risk remained an inherent part of racing, and part of its attraction as a spectacle, drawing comparison with safety measures introduced in Formula 1 motor racing.
“Whenever you are on a racehorse there is a risk and it's one of the few activities in the world where an ambulance follows you round,” McCririck told Al Jazeera. “Look at how Formula 1 has evolved. They have horrendous crashes but very rarely does a driver die compared to what used to happen in the old days. If there was never a crash in a grand prix or a fall in the Grand National what would people say?
“It should be about the bravery and skill of the riders and the horses. It should be about the warriors and the dramas of the race. Now what seems to make the headlines are the the safety issues and the fatalities.”
But Tyler said he believed public perceptions of the Grand National were changing. In a survey by polling organisation GFK NOP last year, almost 60 per cent said the race was cruel, compared with just 40 per cent a decade earlier.
“Gradually, the imperishable upbeat rhetoric surrounding this race has dissolved, the truth of it is coming through and people face some difficult choices,” Tyler said.
“The organisers face Saturday with their fingers crossed and a prayer on their lips. What kind of a sporting event is it where you have to hope that your leading characters are not going to die?”