The Grand National: or When is it time to end a family tradition?

This is an unplanned post, one of those I am prone to put out in response to an event that causes me to think deeply about an issue of importance to me.

As I write, the BBC are once again reporting on the result of the Grand National. ‘A glorious day’ apparently. Hot and sunny certainly, but glorious? Two horses died and most, including the winner, were so dehydrated and exhausted at the end of the race that they couldn’t even make an appearance in the winners enclosure. A recap of the race, explaining why two fences had to be avoided second time round, referred to the dead animals as ‘obstacles’. Twitter is filling up with comments showing various degrees of disgust at the BBC, which is accused of supporting the animal cruelty on display. Suddenly I feel a little sick.

An annual bet on the Grand National is something many people enjoy. For me it is a family tradition that I maintain pretty much by myself now, the children long having lost interest. I bet as a kind of homage to my late father, for whom the Grand National was something of an obsession. I clearly remember the anticipation that began in late March with the first publicity about the Oxford/Cambridge boat race. For some reason that was always the precursor to the Grand National, presumably because there were fewer ‘big’ events to draw us to Frank Bough and Grandstand.  Dad would buy the Daily Express for the pullout; examine the runners and riders, their colours and the odds and make his decision based on a secret formula. He would encourage my Mum, my sister, brother and myself to make our own choices, collecting our betting slips filled out with our each-way bets, all between 20p and 50p. His slip would list about 10 horses, but the rest of us kept to one or two.

From the age of about eight I developed my ‘system’ – I would always choose a horse with a name that started ‘The’ something, regardless of odds (I still do). As a West Ham supporter I might also choose a jockey riding in claret and blue silks. As you can tell, I was something of an expert when it came to backing horses. They were usually out of the race after the third fence.

At about 5pm, just after the race had finished, Dad would drive us down to the betting shop where he would collect our ‘winnings’. To be honest, the only reason the bookies could ever have dreaded his entrance was because they had run out of small change.

So I married, had my own children and continued the tradition, even starting a little sweepstake so if the horse the children chose fell early their interest wouldn’t wane. But it wasn’t the same; could never be the same. Today, as I sat alone in the house – the rest of my family out doing something interesting in the sunshine – and placed my bet online I felt

The Midnight Club

the first stirrings of futility. I put money on two horses this year. An each way bet on The Midnight Club and BecauseIcouldn’tsee totalling the princely sum of £5 – it is after all ‘just for fun’. Neither was placed, and the sight of two beautiful horses, dead and laid out covered in tarpaulins made it a very gloomy affair for me this year.

So it is goodbye to a family tradition. I cannot keep it going any longer. If my Dad were alive then maybe I would cling to it for a little longer. But now it is time to let go.

And perhaps the BBC should too.

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27 Responses to The Grand National: or When is it time to end a family tradition?

  1. Louise Berry says:

    Really well put Suzie.

  2. Steve says:

    Wow – sounds just like my own childhood except that my Dad never actually placed a bet. But like you I grew sick of the National and I’ve contended for some years now that the race should be discontinued.

    • keatsbabe says:

      I am sickened, yes, but the argument about discontinuing it is a difficult one. I certainly don’t think there should be as many horses in the race or the fences so high. If that spoils the ‘fun’ then so be it.

  3. Jane Earthy says:

    600 million people watched the race worldwide. Hardly time to discontinue it. Horses died when we watched when we were young. You have just moved on from the supposedly heady days of Red Rum and l’escargot. The two horses that were killed, although tragic, did end up as obstacles unfortunately and thats the truth of it, even if the beeb had chosen a different way of saying it. Maybe if you had won with your fiver you would have felt completely different.

    • keatsbabe says:

      I did not at any point suggest the race was discontinued as it is one of those race days that always strikes me as inclusive instead of exclusive. But it was sickening today and the BBC coverage was not sensitive to the people who have a real, and justifiable, concern for the well being of the horses. I just felt sad about the whole thing as Grand National Day is a memory I have of Dad that is a fun, positive one.

      And I can’t believe you wrote that last line.

  4. Dave BARRETT says:

    What a beautiful piece of writing.I loved the National and all the excitement but I am now ashamed of myself.To watch those graceful animals die in front of me was pitiful.I can never watch the race again.RIP you gallant beauties.xxx

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thank you. I have opened an interesting debate it seems! I think I feel like you – there has come a point when suddenly I recognised I was part of something that may on the face of it be enjoyable but which relies for its excitement on the risks taken by animals with no say in the matter.

  5. Kirrily says:

    I wish they didn’t do it. I don’t care HOW many millions watch it. Who cares how many watch it, why is that a reason to keep running it? I know I would not contribute one cent if it means it helps maintain a race that, from simply running said race, kills horses and is so difficult for them to endure that they can’t make a quick round of the winner’s circle at the end? Barbaric. I suppose they “enjoy” it and it would be unfair of us humans to make these horses stop too, right? Love that justification (though it hasn’t been used here).

    I’m glad you have stopped watching and placing any bets. I only wish the organisers would stop running it. The short-sighted and small-minded will continue to watch and continue to bet until the race is stamped out. This should be a no-brainer in our day and age – it kills and harms the animals too much, it should stop. Simple.

  6. keatsbabe says:

    I don’t agree that the people who watch are all small minded or short sighted. There are many who will cling to a tradition just because it is just that but others simply don’t recognise the issues when they rely for news on an organisation like the BBC which continues to hide the grim details in its coverage.

    • Kirrily says:

      God, did I write that?! You must have caught me on an ‘off’ day… More accurately, though, and to just clarify (for what it’s worth) I do believe that the organisers of such “sports” are short-sighted. Meaning, the $$ signs are more important than the living creatures making them the money. And sorry if that makes me sound like a party pooper but I can’t agree that those who contribute (ie. the punters, the horse owners, the jockeys) are all not in some way responsible for it still being in existence, however small. You’d have no steeple chasing if you had no betting. Guaranteed.

  7. Him Up North says:

    I don’t like that Jane Earthy much. :)

    The Grand National is a race designed to punish horses, purely and simply. I don’t care if it’s watched by 14 trillion people across three star systems, it is cruel and wrong.

    Thirty horses dead over ten years is a damning statistic. It’s shameful.

    • keatsbabe says:

      She is the scariest person I know :-)

      I agree that today really showed the race up for the punishment it actually is. The horses couldn’t even make it to the winners enclosure. A damning indictment. If we were caught treating a pet like that the RSPCA would ban us from owning one.

  8. amanda says:

    Great stuff Suzie. Being a small-minded person myself I would not like to see the race discontinued but definitely think 40 is far too big a field and there are too many “crabs” as my dad (who also started me off on racing young – Epsom was our local course) used to call them allowed in.
    It said it all when one of the jockeys pre-race was asked whether he fancied his chances with his horse and the reply was “It’s got no chance”.
    So why are no-hopers entered?
    I have never seen diversions like today’s taking place before. What did they do before – just drag the poor things out of the way?

    • keatsbabe says:

      Great points – yes, what did they do with them before? I have been really concerned to learn about the number of horses entered that really have no chance unless all the favourites fall. It is really just big business, not sport at all.

  9. Its a tough one that is always going to have divided opinions. Sadly it has been going on so long that I dont see there being an end to it any time soon. I placed a few quid on yesterday as is the family tradition and we had our own little sweepstake, I won nothing! Every year I can’t bear to watch as they jump and you see them gradually fall. It was horrible seeing them avoid two fences one with a body covered behind it, the other with the vets still working on it. It does annoy me the BBC’s lack of acceptance that there are dead horses, they seem to just gloss over it! I think in many ways we just have to accept that it is never going to end any time soon and if it really upsets us to just not watch.

    • keatsbabe says:

      I am glad that there has been quite a lot of criticism of the commentator’s seeming denial of the dead horses by calling them obstacles. I don’t think they will ever ban the event but I do think that racing, which has always had a seedy side to it frankly, ought to be more closely examined.

  10. Rivenrod says:

    Hi Suzie, Should the event be scrapped altogether as some are calling for. Memories of the ban on fox hunting spring to mind.

    It is a dilemma isn’t it. Be a spoil sport and pander to the Health and Safety fascists or tacitly accept something that I find repulsive. My natural instincts tell me that it could be safer. I was shocked to learn, from my sister who owns racehorses, that both the jockey and the horse are starved of water for a couple of days before a race to reduce weight.

    My un natural cynicism points to there being too much money at stake forcing those involved into making decisions which, to perhaps more sane minds, could be regarded as dangerous.

    Coverage by The BBC enables all of us to be critics but, rightly in my view, steers clear of offering solutions.

    I am a man, I should have all the answers!

    • keatsbabe says:

      Yes you should! Why don’t you?!!!

      Seriously, is it true about the starvation before races? I knew jockeys had to put themselves through a strict regime to make the weight but I didn’t know they did it to the horses too. No wonder they were all whisked away on Saturday. The heat would have made them close to a fatal exhaustion I should think. Like you I think it is a dilemma. If it continues I do think there needs to be a lot more honesty about how the race is run, and won.

      • Rivenrod says:

        Oh ’tis true indeed.

        My sister is a horsey yuppie from Surrey, completely off her rocker, but she told me this snippet as if it were completely natural. In fact if anyone didn’t starve themselves and their horses of water, they were the ones who were mad.

        One of those cases where something bizarre or outrageous to most people, when repeated often enough, becomes completely normal and expected. Like politicians expenses and instances of domestic violence.

        I agree about the honesty, but will it happen, really?

  11. Sue Short says:

    As you know Suzanne, I was huge fan of Red Rum and the Grand National in my youth. As a family we never bet, but it was always required viewing every spring. My own family haven’t understood the romantic pull that this race has had on me ( I dreamt that I could be Elizabeth Taylor and ride my own Pie) and I’ve usually ended up watching it by myself, but with my hands over my eyes! I didn’t watch it this year so didn’t see that the race was diverted round some jumps due to the dead horses – apparently this was the first time since the rule was introduced about 3 years ago that horses have actually died in the main race. However, perhaps the audience shouldn’t be sheilded from the consequences of what is run in the name of entertainment and personal profit? The other point is that the 2 dead horses this year or even 30 dead horses over the last 10 years is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg – in today’s economic climate owners can’t afford to keep their horses in training anymore and they are going to the meat market. And how many thorough-bred foals/yearlings don’t even get that far? I don’t know – I’m no expert, but as a nation of ‘animal lovers’ are we happy for horses to become livestock?

    • keatsbabe says:

      Yes, I remember! I was a big fan of L’Escargot, so often second to the great Red Rum (beat him in the end though!). Only I could put money on a horse called ‘The Snail’….

      I didn’t know how low the racing business had sunk. I fear many of the beautiful beasts that don’t make it end up as glue. Frankly, we have no business treating them as ‘disposable’. There isn’t even the argument that we eat the poor brutes. It is a complete waste of life.

  12. Bethan says:

    I’ve never had any family / personal interest in the Grand National or any “sporting” event, but as an animal lover I was appalled when Ali told me years ago that horses die in the race, and amazed that noone else seemed to realise or disagree with it.

    This is the first year I’ve heard any voices in the media challenging it, and reading these posts from people who’ve actually watched the thing and finding out those “grim details”, the reality and the cover ups has made me even more sickened by it but also relieved there are other people who feel the same. I hate the exploitation of animals in the name of entertainment and gambling and hope the Grand National goes the same way as bullfighting in Catalonia.

    I do admire you for not being afraid to break a family tradition and assert your own values and principles with integrity. You’ll still keep the memories of your father and having the shared experiences together, and I definitely think you should keep up the family hot cross bun tradition in its place…

    Thank you for keeping such a thoughtful and brave blog. It always makes me think, and makes me miss you. Let’s try again to meet up for that coffee.

  13. Lynne Earthy says:

    A very interesting debate. Let me throw this dilemma into the race! How would the BBC describe a dead jockey if one were crushed and killed by a falling horse?

  14. keatsbabe says:

    Thanks Lynne That is a new angle for a new year! I suspect his fellow jockeys would mumble stuff like ‘he died doing what he loved’. Pity the horses don’t have a voice :(

  15. Without racing the horses wouldn’t have a life Suzie – they just wouldn’t exist in the first place and, contrary to some comments on here, by and large, the horses are treated better than many a nag at a local riding stable with the best of everything. Yes, a very small % do die, as they do in other equestrian sports (3 day eventing next on the banned list perhaps? Or maybe we could make it just a one day event and only do the dressage) and it is sad – something that no-one, least of all the owners, want to see – and not, as I’ve seen mooted, because of some idea that it will cost them a lot of money, but because they genuinely love the horses.

    One other thing to throw into the debate, like it or not, is that the horseracing industry (for I accept that’s what it is) is a massive employer in this country. We should think long and hard about putting almost 100,000 people out of work (cue response about public sector workers!)

  16. keatsbabe says:

    Well we must just agree to differ Phil. And if I am predictable as your last line suggests then at least, contrary to the last line of my other sibling’s comment, I have the comfort of knowing I stick to my principles.

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