The Grand National is regarded as a national institution by many in the United Kingdom, a must-watch sporting event – but it is also one of the most controversial horse races in the world.
This weekend, the race again made headlines as police said more than 100 people were arrested Saturday, and the start of the race was delayed by 14 minutes as animal rights protestors got onto the course in Aintree, Liverpool.
There is little sign of the debate over the merits of the 4.3-mile steeplechase race abating as British animal welfare organization the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has called for an urgent review into the deaths of three horses during this year’s three-day event.
Animal Aid, which calls itself one of the UK’s largest animal rights groups, has called for jump racing to be banned.
But the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has condemned the protests, saying the “actions of a small number of people” will not diminish the Grand National’s “huge and enduring international appeal.”
The Grand National, the showpiece race of the event, was first run in 1839 and is no stranger to demonstrators looking to disrupt the race.
But at this year’s race, the protests – which weren’t unexpected as animal rights group Animal Rising had suggested in the build-up that it was planning on disrupting the Grand National – intensified.
The race, which has been modified in recent years to ease safety concerns, sees a field of up to 40 horses jumping 30 fences roughly the size of small cars, but the demanding course has resulted in multiple fatalities over the years.
According to animal rights organization PETA UK, 36 horses have died at the festival since 2010.
Following the changes made to the start and alterations to some fences after the 2012 Grand National, there have been five fatalities in the headline race, including the one death Saturday.
During the Grand National broadcast, protestors could be seen trying to scale the fencing around the perimeters of the course, some made it onto the course itself, which resulted in the delayed start.
A statement from Merseyside Police said that 118 people had been arrested “on a number of offences including causing public nuisance and criminal damages.”
In a Twitter post, Animal Rising – previously called Animal Rebellion – said “hundreds of incredibly brave animal lovers took direct action in the name of Animal Rising to protect the horses at Aintree.”
The group said it was glad that conversations about animal rights were “finally happening.”
Opinion on the group’s actions has varied, with plenty on social media supporting and opposing the protests.
Speaking on ITV Racing during the protests, former jockey AP McCoy called the protestors “attention seekers.”
Sandy Thomson, trainer of Hill Sixteen who fatally fell at the first fence Saturday, claimed the delayed start had contributed to the horse’s death.
He told the Racing Post: “He just hasn’t taken off at the first fence; he’s got so bloody hyper because of the carry on … I know how ignorant these people are and they haven’t a bloody clue. They just cause more problems than they ever solve.”
Hill Sixteen’s death followed that of Dark Raven, who died earlier on Saturday in another race, and Envoye Special who died on Thursday.
In a statement to CNN Sport, the RSPCA, which has previously worked with the BHA on making the Grand National safer, said: “We believe that racehorses should have a good life on and off the track, and should never be exposed to unacceptable risk of injury or death.”
The charity also called for the use of the whip to be stopped, believing it increased the risk of injury and death to both jockeys and horses.
“We urgently call on the British Horseracing Authority to constructively engage with us and fully review the circumstances of each of these sad deaths so that we never again exit a festival of racing with three dead horses,” it said.
In a statement on Twitter, Animal Aid said: “Aintree, the worst of all racecourses, is a disgrace and the Jockey Club and British racing should hang their heads in utter shame at what we have seen over the past three days.”
Dickon White is the North-West Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses and runs Aintree Racecourse. He said in a statement that the short delay was caused by the “reckless actions of a small number of individuals.”
White added: “While the actions of a small number of individuals were intended to disrupt the event, the safety and security of everyone on course will always be our number one priority.”
In a statement on the BHA website, the organization’s chief executive Julie Harrington said the races would be analyzed in “painstaking detail” to help “understand what caused these incidents.”
Harrington said the sport was committed to improving welfare standards and that horse fatalities in the sport had reduced by over a third in the last 20 years, to 0.2% of runners.
“We respect the right of anyone to hold views about our sport but we robustly condemn the reckless and potentially harmful actions of a handful of people in disrupting the race at a time when horses were in the parade ring,” Harrington said. “The Grand National is and always will be an iconic sporting event.”
Whatever side of the fence people may be on, Saturday’s protests certainly dominated the headlines, to such an extent that it arguably overshadowed the race itself, which was won by Corach Rambler.