I don’t gamble, and I am against animal cruelty. So why, every April, do I dabble in the former and tolerate the latter?
The cause of my annual ethical lapse is a horse race. Not just any horse race. This one is ingrained in the British psyche. It is a unifying event. It ranks with The Beatles as one of Liverpool’s essential contributions to the fabric of British life.
Several countries have annual horse races that have broken beyond the usual confines of the sport to become national institutions. The Kentucky Derby, for instance. In Australia, the Melbourne Cup. In France, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
For the duration of those races, amateur gamblers pin their fortunes on a particular horse, and for two or three heart-stopping minutes the dominant sounds in bars and homes across the nation are the thunder of hooves and a TV commentary crescendoing to virtual hysteria.
England’s Grand National shares the attendant cultural trappings of the world’s other great races, but there is one significant difference. Whereas those races are short sprints over flat courses, the National (as it is familiarly known) is a grueling steeplechase.
Steeplechasing originated in Ireland in the 17th century. The reputed first race was cross-country, between two churches. The riders had to jump hedges and streams as they galloped to the finish, using the church steeple as a navigation aid.
Formal steeplechase races were staged on British and Irish courses from 1794 onward, with purpose-built fences and water jumps. The season traditionally runs through winter, when the softer ground makes jumping less hazardous for horses and riders.
Nevertheless, the races are tough, involving more than one lap of the course, with many jumps to be overcome. The toughest race of all is the Grand National, held on Liverpool’s Aintree Racecourse since 1839.
Over a distance of four miles and four furlongs, the 40 horses must jump 30 fences before the final heavy-legged gallop to the finish line. Few make it all the way around. Some unseat their riders and run on, getting in everyone else’s way. But also, with unsettling regularity, horses die.
Of all the Grand National racing odds, the most macabre is 73-1. That’s the likelihood of an individual horse being killed during the race — for every 73 participants, one dies. When you place a bet on the National, it is often more likely your chosen horse will die than win.
In 2012, I bet on the third favorite, Synchronized. He lost his rider at the infamous sixth fence, Becher’s Brook, and then fell catastrophically at the 11th. When the horses came round for the second lap, they were diverted around the fence, where a discrete tent had been erected. I knew what that meant: Synchronized was being euthanized.
With a betting stub bearing the doomed horse’s name, I felt complicit in the tragedy. And yet, this year, on April 6, I will again pore over the Grand National supplements, weighing up runners and riders before making my annual bet.
I understand why campaigners have long called for the National to be banned. Ordinarily, given my love of animals, I would add my voice to theirs. But ethical considerations are overwhelmed by the absolute elation I felt when Red Marauder triumphed in 2001, returning me a handsome payday at 40-1. The feeling is addictive. Without my annual betting outlet, could I resist the lure of other forms of gambling?
So I’ll be betting again this year, with the foremost hope they all get ’round safely. And that my chosen horse will do so first.
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