The Grand National is the marquee event on the horse racing calendar. Every year, the three-day festival sells out its 70,000 daily capacity, while an estimated 600 million people worldwide watched the 2016 instalment of the race on television. This year’s was the 169th running of the race. Its continuation over such a length of time is testament to its popularity, both for spectator and participant, the race being regularly touted as “the ultimate test of horse and rider”.
However, with the growing prominence of animal rights activism across the world, horse racing has faced huge criticism for the quantity of deaths and injuries suffered by horses. Last year, 124 horses died, or were put down, as a result of horse racing, as stated by the website Race Horse Death Watch; similarly, since the website began (13th March 2007), 1,380 horses have died. The context must be given: The National reports that, in 2013, 90,000 horses took part in racing, with 0.2 per cent of those dying.
These statistics regarding death are truly shocking, and add much fuel to the cause of such groups as Animal Aid, who campaign for the abolition of horse racing. The Grand National, as the most prestigious race of the year, is used by Animal Aid to hammer home the barbarism of horse racing, describing the event as a “cruel, unreformable travesty of true sporting values.” Across the festival, five horses died, and only 16 horses out of 39 finished the Grand National race.
The Grand National race is particularly testing, both for its length and the size of the fences—two laps of a 15-fence circuit, measuring 6.9km. Becher’s Brook, The Chair and the Canal Turn are world famous for their intimidating size. The Aintree racecourse has made several modifications to the fences in recent years in an attempt to improve safety. However, this has done little to calm the debate over racing, in fact in reducing the difficulty of the Aintree course in a bid to improve safety, the racecourse management have been criticised by the traditionalists; they claim the National is losing its unique quality in the reduction of its difficulty.
The Grand National is an event etched into the fabric of British sporting culture, comparable to the likes of the FA Cup Final and Wimbledon. However, it will stand to look more and more barbaric as our realisation of human ignorance towards animal welfare grows.
The killing of animals for consumption and products has a clearer argument: We gain a direct benefit from the killing. However, the killing of animals as a by-product of sport is morally dubious. Spectators gain enjoyment, perhaps money if they bet well, and jockeys and trainers gain prestige and money if their horse is successful. However, this end doesn’t justify the means. Horse racing, like all sports, is a superfluous activity. Deaths from a superfluous activity are more dubious than deaths from an industry that can be considered, at least partly, necessary for survival.
The problem for animal activists is that, unlike say fox hunting, which was successfully banned in 2004, horse racing is a huge money-making industry. The Grand National is particularly lucrative; for many people, it is the only racing bet, or maybe even the only bet, they make in a year. It is estimated that betting companies can make as much as £150 million from the race. Its popularity for betting is reflected in the viewing figures. Channel 4 estimates that 10 million people in Britain watched this year’s Grand National.
Any economist will tell you that if there is enough demand for something, there will be supply. Ultimately, the weight of popularity and tradition will overshadow the moral argument against horse racing for the foreseeable future.