Two horses die in historic steeplechase

BY foxsports • April 11, 2011

Animal welfare groups were calling Monday for the United Kingdom's most celebrated annual racing event, the Grand National, to be banned after two horses died in the grueling four-mile, 30-fence race.

Ornais and Dooneys Gate were killed Saturday in the world famous steeplechase event at Aintree Racecourse, near Liverpool in northwest England.

Only 19 of the 40 starters finished the race. The winner, Ballabriggs, reportedly came close to collapse from dehydration. Since 2000, 20 horses have perished on the course.

The director of Animal Aid, one of the UK's largest animal-rights groups, said it was time the race, which is now in its 164th year, was banned.

Andrew Tyler said the combination of tightly packed fields, high fences, the long distance and huge crowd noise made the spectacle extremely dangerous for the animals.

"The public has been conned into believing that the Grand National is a great sporting spectacle when, in reality, it is straightforward animal abuse that is on a par with Spanish bullfighting," he said. "This race should have no future in a civilized country."

The call for a ban was echoed by the Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe and the League Against Cruel Sports.

But racing industry officials and horse trainers defended the historic race.

Andy Stewart, the owner of Ornais, who broke his neck in a fall, said he would continue to support the event despite the "unfortunate" incident.

He criticized the media coverage of the deaths and said the calls for bans were "totally wrong."

"We all take chances in our life," Stewart said. "This was unfortunate. He broke his neck, and he died instantly."

Legendary trainer Ginger McCain, 80, whose son, Donald McCain Jr., trained the race winner Ballabriggs, said safety measures at the National had made it faster and more dangerous.

"Of course it's sad, but it's speed that kills," he said. "The way they have changed it, getting rid of the drops, the horses are not measuring their fences."

Aintree Racecourse managing director Julian Thick said the deaths were "desperately sad," but he added that safety was the first priority for the race's organizers.

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