Racing: Fatality puts National meeting in spotlight

ANIMAL welfare at the Grand National came under further scrutiny last night after a horse died on the first day of the meeting at Aintree.

Battlefront was pulled up during the fourth race by jockey Katie Walsh and later collapsed and died. It came after Walsh defended the sport earlier this week, saying in a magazine interview that the horses were treated better than “many children”.

Battlefront had cleared ten fences in the John Smith’s Fox Hunters’ Steeple Chase, the first competitive test of significant course changes and new fence frames designed to improve safety. The cause of his death has not been confirmed but it is thought Battlefront may have suffered a heart attack. A further five horses fell in the race, although none was significantly injured.

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Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, said: “The Aintree authorities and the British Horse Racing Authority have been claiming that major new safety measures and efficiencies would eliminate much of the risk associated with racing on the Grand National course.

“But today’s Fox Hunters’ Chase, in which Battlefront lost his life, was stomach-wrenchingly chaotic from start to finish Several horses fell or were pulled up, tired and potentially injured.

“It was both utterly depressing and served as confirmation that the Aintree authorities have got it badly wrong once again.” Battlefront was the 23rd horse to die on the National course since 2000, Animal Aid said.

Aintree officials made significant alterations to the course after last year’s big race was marred by the death of two horses, According To Pete and Synchronised. That followed two fatalities in the 2011 race, 
Ornais and Dooney’s Gate.

Old wooden fence frames have been replaced with “Easyfix plastic birch”, dressed with spruce. Aintree said the new fences were “kinder if the horse makes a mistake”. The height of the fences remains the same.

The Aintree Hurdle was the showpiece race on the first day of the meeting and Ruby Walsh warmed up for the National by riding Zarkandar to a gutsy win.

Zarkandar (11-2) led all the way in a particularly sweet victory for Walsh, who tumbled from the horse in the same race last year and was forced to give up his seat on On His Own for the National because of injury. First Lieutenant provided trainer Mouse Morris with a birthday winner in the Betfred Bowl, while there was significant Scottish success when Tartan Snow, a 100-1 chance, edged out Cool Friend in a thrilling finish to the Fox Hunters’ Chase, the race that saw the loss of Battlefront.

Cool Friend looked like landing the amateur riders’ Grand National when he led over the final fence, but he could not quite shake off the opposition. Hawick’s Jamie Hamilton brought Stuart Coltherd’s 13-year-old with a late charge to snatch victory in the last few strides. “This is the biggest race we’ve ever won. I was up lambing at 2am so this makes it worthwhile,” said Coltherd.

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Today, punters will get to see the mighty Sprinter Sacre. Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old stretched his unbeaten record over fences to eight with a scintillating display in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham last month and runs today in the John Smith’s Melling Chase.