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Sunday, April 10, 2011

BBC in Grand National ‘cover-up’: Two horses lie dead... but fury as TV commentator just calls them ‘obstacles’

By Ian Gallagher

Distressing sight: Runners and riders lie in a tangle on the ground after jumping the notorious Becher's Brook where Dooneys Gate died today

Two horses died during yesterday’s Grand National in one of the most ‘distressing’ races in recent history.

Millions of TV viewers saw Ornais fall at the fourth fence, breaking his neck, while Dooneys Gate broke his back minutes later at Becher’s Brook.

It meant that for the first time in the race’s history the two fences were bypassed during the second circuit of the Aintree track – as the horses were hastily screened off with tarpaulins.

But the BBC was accused of a ‘cover-up’ after commentator Mick Fitzgerald described the dead horses as ‘obstacles’.

The former Grand National winner made the remark while discussing how chequered flags were waved as jockeys approached the 20th and 22nd fences, which they were required to bypass because the dead bodies had not been removed.

Mr Fitzgerald said: ‘The thing is, you know there is an obstacle ahead, that’s what these chequered flags tell you.’

One viewer wrote on the corporation’s own website: ‘I’m amazed that the BBC coverage pans over the tarpaulins on the re-run and the commentators just talk about “obstacles”.’

Another said: ‘And the BBC – shame on you. No mention of what’s happened, even when there’s 2 dead covered horses on screen.’

On The Mail on Sunday website, commenters also expressed outrage. ‘Jax’ branded the race ‘disgusting and cruel’, adding: ‘It’s not the Grand National, it’s a national disgrace.’

Covered up: A dead horse is hidden by tarpaulin as the race continues over on the far side of the Aintree course

Another, ‘Phoenix’, said: ‘I cannot believe in this day and age that this kind of public cruelty still goes on. Two animals died today but nobody cares, we’ll do it all again next year.’

John Ledbury wrote: ‘It’s appalling that two horses died for our amusement. This jump should be banned.’

Meanwhile, jockey Peter Toole was understood to be in a 'critical condition' after a 'horrible' fall in an earlier race.

The 22-year-old Irishman is being treated at the Liverpool Fazakerley Hospital's Walton Centre For Neurology & Neuro Surgery.

His horse Classic Fly crashed to the ground in the early stages of the John Smith's Maghull Novices' Chase, one of the earlier races on Grand National day.

Lambourn-based trainer and ex-jump jockey Charlie Mann, to whom Toole is attached as a conditional jockey, wrote on his official Twitter account: 'Peter Toole being kept under sedation in hospital [with] possible head injuries.'

He continued: 'Thoughts with him & family.'

Of the main race, Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid described the gruelling four-and-a-half-mile marathon as one of the most ‘distressing’ races he could recall and echoed criticisms of the BBC, saying: ‘It is particularly callous and disgusting that a member of the commentary team should describe the dead horses as they lay on the course as an “obstacle”.’

Aintree said the bypassing practice became possible two years ago for the first time as part of ‘ongoing safety improvements’. More than half the 40 runners failed to make the finish line.

Tragedy: Dooneys Gate, in the centre of the picture one of the race's two fatalities ridden by Paul Mullins, falls at Becher's Brook

Over: Grand Slam Hero and Aidan Coleman at the 13th fence. Just 19 of the field of 40 finished the race

Tony Moore, chairman of Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe, led a group of around 40 people demonstrating outside the racecourse. He said: ‘If they really care about horses, why do the owners, jockeys and trainers put them through this ordeal?’

On average, three horses a year are fatally injured over the three-day Aintree meeting. Ornais, ridden by Nick Scholfield, came to grief at the fourth fence.The nine-year-old was one of four horses in the race trained by Paul Nicholls, who said: ‘He was a very good novice chaser in his early days. It is bad luck and very sad to lose a horse in this way.’

Dooneys Gate came down two fences later at Becher’s Brook. Irish trainer Willie Mullins, whose son Patrick was having his first National ride on the horse, said: ‘He was a good servant to us. It’s very unfortunate and Patrick is devastated.’

Viewers could clearly see the dead horses being covered with tarpaulins from an aerial camera. The BBC’s Grand National presenter Clare Balding later tweeted: ‘Very sorry to report two fatalities at the Grand National – thoughts with all those connected with Ornais & Dooneys Gate.’

Julian Thick, managing director of Aintree Racecourse, said: ‘We are desperately sad at the accidents and our thoughts go out to the connections of Ornais and Dooneys Gate. When a horse gets hurt, everyone is deeply upset. Safety is the first priority for the organisers of the Grand National meeting and we will redouble our efforts to make sure that everyone involved in the event is able to participate in safety and comfort. Horseracing is a carefully regulated and monitored sport. All horses and riders in the Grand National have to meet very high standards set by an independent panel of experts.’

Responding to Animal Aid’s criticism, a BBC spokesman said: ‘We were aware of the unfortunate events of the two fatalities. During the race and the re-run this was covered with as much sensitivity as possible.

‘Clare [Balding] was also most sensitive in her reporting of the incidents and even touched on it in her closing links to the programme.’

Watched by 600 million people worldwide, the race was won by Ballabriggs, which finished ahead of Oscar Time ridden by Kate Middleton’s friend Sam Waley-Cohen.

Bookmakers William Hill said more than £250 million was gambled yesterday.

33 tragedies at course in just 11 years

In all 33 horses have died during three-day Grand National meetings at Aintree since 2000 – and it is unusual for no horse to be killed as a result of the main race itself.

In 2000 five horses died over the three days. The high death toll prompted animal rights activists to describe it as a ‘blood bath’ and call for an investigation.

Strong Promise, Rossell Island and Architect all suffered fatal falls on the first day of the meeting while Lake Kariba had a heart attack at the end of a race. Toni’s Tip sustained fatal spinal injuries during a race the following day.

Close up: Horses attempting the notoriously difficult Becher's Brook at the Grand National

In 2001, The Outback Way also died from spinal injuries. Of the four deaths in 2002, two – The Last Fling and Manx Magic – happened during the Grand National race itself. Desert Mountain and Anubis Quercus died in earlier races at the meeting.

Goguenard had to be put down after the 2003 Grand National and Coolnagorna was also put down after breaking a hind leg. Unusually, there were no deaths in 2004.

But Lilium de Cotte died after suffering a haemorrhage on the middle day of the 2005 meeting, and two horses – Terivic and Tyneandthyneagain – were killed in 2006.

Tyneandthyneagain perished after falling at the first fence in the main race.

The 2007 meeting saw the deaths of three horses.

Lord Rodney and Into The Shadows were killed in races before the main event.

Falling: Riders and horses fall in the melee at Becher's Brook

Dramatic: Several horses fall at Becher's, captured here in dramatic close up

Meanwhile, Graphic Approach died a month after sustaining injuries at the notorious Becher’s Brook fence during the Grand National.

Another three horses were killed in 2008: Time To Sell, The High Grass and McKelvey.

McKelvey had become something of a star after featuring on BBC1’s The One Show as he
was treated for a tendon injury and prepared for the iconic race.

But 2009 was an even worse year, with five deaths – the worst toll since 2000.

Hear The Echo collapsed and died at the end of the big race on the Saturday, while Exotic Dancer, Mel In Blue, Moscow Catch and Lilla Sophia died earlier during the meeting.

A further four died last year, 2010, although none of them during the main Grand National race. Pagan Starprincess, Prudent Honour, Plaisir D’Estraval and Schindlers Hunt all fell during previous races.

This year, one of the bloodiest for the Grand National itself, two horses, Ornais and Dooneys Gate, died during the main race. Inventor fell on Thursday.

Animal Aid claims 162 horses have died on race courses in Britain over the past 12 months.

The organisation’s website carries a feature called Race Horse Death Watch, which keeps a running record of racing tragedies up and down the country.

And they're off! The horses make their way down to the first fence in the John Smith's Grand National

On his way: Ballabriggs ridden by Jason Maguire in green and yellow silks leaps over the water jump on his way to winning the Grand National

Winner: Jockey Jason Maguire celebrating after romping home by two and a quarter lengths on Ballabriggs



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