Grand National: Soulsearching after deaths mar thrilling finish

ONE of the most thrilling finishes ever seen in the Grand National was overshadowed by sadness and soul‑ searching over the safety of the race, as Neptune Collonges’ victory was quickly followed by the news that Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and joint-favourite Synchronised and According To Pete had suffered fatal injuries.

Neptune Collonges became the first grey winner of the National since 1961 and added the only major prize missing from trainer Paul Nicholls’ trophy collection under a powerful ride from Daryl Jacob. The 33-1 shot denied Sunnyhillboy by a nose – the shortest possible margin – with heavily backed 8-1 joint-favourite Seabass, ridden by Katie Walsh, in third and Cappa Bleu fourth.

But it was news of Synchronised’s death, along with According To Pete, that dominated discussions afterwards.

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The day after the race, British Horseracing Authority chief executive Paul Bittar spoke of his belief that changes implemented since last year’s Grand National need time to be judged. Australian Bittar, a recent incumbent to his position at the BHA, also expressed his sympathy to connections of the two horses who had died during the Aintree marathon on Saturday.

This year’s National was the first to be run since an extensive safety review into various elements, leading to a number of changes to fences and race conditions. The RSCPA has urged further review, particularly into ‘drop’ fences such as Becher’s Brook.

Bittar said in a statement: “We extend our deepest sympathies to the connections of Synchronised and According To Pete who we know are devastated at the loss of two home-bred horses which meant so much to them. In November last year, the BHA published the findings from a comprehensive and detailed review of all elements of the Grand National.

“At this stage, we believe it would be premature to suggest that modifications to the course and other changes have not been effective or will not yet prove to be effective.

“Since the review and the implementation of changes, four races have been held over the course without incident prior to [Saturday’s] running of the Grand National. We are reasonably advanced in the process of examining the incidents which led to Synchronised and According To Pete being put down.

“While that process still needs to be completed, it is relevant to point out that although both horses lost their riders jumping Becher’s Brook, Synchronised galloped away from the fence seemingly without injury and then subsequently incurred a fracture to a hind leg when jumping riderless, while According To Pete was brought down by another horse on the second circuit.

“We will be collating all the relevant information and data from this year’s Grand National meeting so that it can be reviewed in conjunction with the statistics and findings of the review.”

Bittar added: “It is important these matters be judged over a period of time. The decade since 2000 was the safest on record for the Grand National with a fatality rate of 1.5 per cent compared to 3.3 per cent at the start of the 1990s. Sadly, there have been two fatalities in each of the last two runnings of the race. Naturally our objective is for there to be no fatalities, but we also recognise that we cannot remove risk altogether from such a competitive activity.”

The betting fraternity will keep a close eye on public opinion – despite turnover on the race reaching record levels.

“I think it is facing one of its most difficult periods in the aftermath of Saturday,” said Ladbrokes’ David Williams. “Amidst all of the soulsearching which quite rightly is going to take place, it is worth remembering that there was record turnover on the race, so the sport must be doing something right.

“For a long time we thought the Grand National was the golden egg. If we are not careful we will wake up one April and realise that people want nothing more to do with it and we will wonder where we went wrong.”

Synchronised, trained by Jonjo O’Neill, was briefly loose before the start before being caught and reunited with his jockey, Tony McCoy.

Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, said: “It’s just of those things. The horse looked perfect when he got up from the fall and he galloped away and jumped away afterwards. When he was up and running again you’d be hoping he’d be fine afterwards, they usually are, but what happened happened and it was very sad.

Evan Williams, trainer of fourth home Cappa Bleu, said: “Unfortunately horses pay the ultimate price sometimes. Nobody was sadder than I was. I feel for all of the connections, but the truth of the matter is it’s a great race.

“Let’s talk about the positives. We had a grey horse win, trained by a champion trainer who has won the championship again by winning his first National.

“We had Katie Walsh crossing the Melling Road on Seabass, looking like she was going to win for her father. It was a great, great race with some wonderful stories. Let’s not be negative.”