The Grand National: The general public’s last uncomfortable pleasure

Ed Maclachlan guides us throught the moral maze of the National

Grand National

A moral paradox rears its head every year at Aintree. The phrase “have your cake and eat it too” springs to mind time and time again as I see friends and family get increasingly more excited in the run up to the biggest horserace of the year, admiring these magnificent animals parading around the paddock.

The race itself is watched by the vast majority of the public (estimated 600 million worldwide). The excitement at the starting rope is palpable (if not a little marred by an incredibly ugly man struggling with said rope). And they’re off! The first jump, the second, and then it happens.


It happens every year, a horse falls; some of these horses are put down. This is where I become confused with the general public’s reaction. There are sudden outcries of how cruel the race is and how it should be made easier.


These come from the same people and media outlets who not a moment earlier have been so uncontrollably excited by the prospect of the famous event. The problem runs deeper, next year the anticipation will be at the same level as this year, with the dark side forgotten.


When horses are inevitably killed the protests will ensue but once again be forgotten in time for the following year. This intensely fickle aspect of human nature, where a primal excitement intertwined with danger has to battle with sensitivity and compassion, is painfully laid bare.

Perhaps, the most indicative and revealing action is that of the BBC. After endless promotion and hype surrounding Gold cup winning horse Synchronized; Claire Balding adds a perfunctory footnote to her post race round up, stating there had been some ‘equine fatalities’ and sadly Synchronized had been ‘destroyed’.


One gets the impression that the BBC are all too aware of paradox of the National and want to sanitise this inconvenient truth They are just one small step from failing to mention that any horses died at all.

An interesting parallel can be drawn between steeple chasing and fox hunting. In the name of entertainment animals are routinely killed. Of course, there are differences in the aims of the sport, but the results are the same: dead animals.


My point is that the vast majority of the public watch the National, but a great part of that majority will fervently claim fox hunting is cruel and inhumane.

Those who had been so looking forward to the National, feel an unfamiliar sense of guilt as they realise they have been supporting an event that consistently ends in animal fatalities. My issue is not with these fatalities; I don’t want to see the National made easier.


I can appreciate that this is an unfortunate necessity of the exciting but dangerous sport of steeplechasing. My issue arises with those that adore and celebrate the National pre race but criticise and condemn after the event. No one is more guilty of these double standards than our national newspapers.

This event is perhaps, the last bastion of sport, which includes real suffering and danger. The very exhilaration of the event is drawn from the hazard and risk that horse and jockey have to overcome to become champion. One questions how long, in today’s climate, it will be allowed to continue?