Last week, writing in the Racing Post, the excellent, award-winning Tom Kerr wrote a wonderful article on the jeopardy of relying on perception to draw a clear picture of events when facts are available to define the situation more honestly and with greater clarity.
He cited front page stories in The Times and Daily Telegraph suggesting the reason for Cheltenham closing its bars earlier and limiting the number of drinks to customers was because racing has an inherent problem with drunken race-goers. Untrue, of course, as the facts suggest. Only 7 people arrested over 4 days of the Cheltenham Festival whereas hundreds were arrested at the Glastonbury Festival and the Notting Hill Carnival. Certain sections of the press have never allowed the facts to spoil a good story and unfortunately there does seem an agenda to paint racing in a poor light whenever opportunity occurs.
I am not here to heap praise on Tom Kerr or to steal his ‘copy’. But he was right in what he said and it was brought home to me last week when watching videos of sixties and early seventies Grand Nationals. I have an appalling memory. These days I do not so much remember facts and recognise them, and though I knew who would win each National I watched the fence-by-fence story-line as if the race was being run before my very eyes.
In the sixties the Grand National fences were still quite black and upright, with jockeys deliberately slipping the reins and leaning backwards to mitigate the angle of descent. But it was not riding styles that took my attention but the comparative lack of fallers, especially on the first circuit and I was reminded of comments by Ruby Walsh after the furore of the tragic and accidental deaths of According To Pete and Synchronised in Neptune Collonge’s National. He said, and I am paraphrasing, if you want to slow the race down to make it safer the fences should be made bigger, not smaller.
You see, I perceived that the tinkering with the fences in the seventies onwards was a direct result of the amount of fallers in the sixties. But in 61 when Nicolaus Silver won 14 finished out of 35 starters, of which 13 fell. In 62, Kilmore’s year, 17 finished out of 32 starters. In 63 when Ayala won, 22 finished out of 47 starters. In 63 15 finished out of 33 starters. In 64 14 finished out of 47 starters. In deed in Foinavon’s year 18 finished from 44 starters and until the riderless Popham Down, who had parted company with his jockey at the first and proceeded to jump every fence thereafter with gay aplomb, popped so many down most of the field were still running going to the fence after Becher’s second time round.
The fences had altered by 73, of course, though they were nothing like they are today, yet Red Rum, Crisp, L’Escargot and Spanish Steps still all managed to break Golden Miller’s course record, suggesting that the fences were not as fearsome as perception insists upon.
I am not suggesting we turn back time to the sixties and remodel the National fences on Hadrian’s Wall. But we should remind ourselves, especially if further tinkering is mooted, that it is speed that kills and if we want the National to be safer we should first consult the wisebeards of the weighing room, not those whose equine experience is acquired from theory. We rejoice, or at least the television presenters rejoice, when 17, 18 or 19 or more complete the course. But it’s not unusual and not justification for the re-modelling of the fences and the levelling of the course at Becher’s and elsewhere. Perhaps for the survival of the race the latest alterations were necessary but if the Grand National stops being a test of horse and jockey the sport of horse racing will lose its brightest jewel on the altar of political correctness.
Initially I was opposed to the changes to the fences believing that in making them ‘softer’ it would encourage speed and disadvantage the good jumper and after watching all those videos last week I am minded to think Ruby Walsh was right and to pat myself on the back for once also being on the right side of the argument.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.