National nightmare at Aintree

Jockey Tony McCoy, left, and trainer Jonjo O'Neill with Synchronised after their Gold Cup success last month
Jockey Tony McCoy, left, and trainer Jonjo O'Neill with Synchronised after their Gold Cup success last month
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Drama and death in the Grand National should leave us all with a very uncomfortable feeling.

Like the rest of the nation, I have been hooked on the Merseyside marathon since I was a kid and this year’s photo finish win for the gallant Neptune Collonges was a thriller.

But when a magnificent horse like Gold Cup winner Synchronised has to be destroyed, it is time to think again about the cost of our enjoyment.

Family pet According to Pete was the other fatality this year – following on from two other equine tragedies in the 2011 National.

The Aintree authorities have worked hard to try to make the fences, particularly the mountainous Becher’s Brook, a little safer.

But has it really worked?

Synchronised jumped that fence well, but still found the drop on the landing side too steep, lost balance and unseated Tony McCoy.

The Cheltenham hero ran on riderless for five more fences before tragically sustaining a broken leg in a failed attempt to clear the 11th.

Trainer Jonjo O’Neill and the owners will now be haunted by their decision to run their equine star.

How they must wish they had simply put Synchronised into a field to munch grass for the summer after his heroic exertions at Cheltenham.

Were they being a little greedy in expecting the horse to deliver again so soon?

For Jonjo, this is an eerie repeat of 1979 when he rode Alverton to Gold Cup glory, only for the horse to die in the National a few weeks later.

Perhaps it is time for the authorities to decree that no horse is allowed to attempt that over-demanding double.

And with the RSPCA rightly expressing concern and calling for safety reviews, Aintree must do more.

It is time to cut the race from 40 to 30 runners.

That, at least, might prevent the traffic jams on the first circuit which prevent several horses from getting a clear view of the fences.

It might also stop so many horses being brought down as they crash into other stricken animals on the turf.

A reduction in the number of runners would not dilute the drama of the race one iota.

Traditionalists will say we’ve all gone soft and that dicing with danger is part of the race’s appeal.

Perhaps they are the same people who loved the way racing drivers flirted with death in the bad old days of frightening casualty rates.

Since then, Formula One has been made far safer (no F1 driver has died since Ayrton Senna) without losing its appeal.

Similarly, the Grand National’s unique four-and-a-half-mile distance and distinct setting means it will always capture our imagination.

Horses very occasionally die at other tracks like Wetherby, Kelso and Plumpton and it hardly merits a line in the newspapers.

But when a Gold Cup winner dies in the biggest race of the year, it is a PR disaster for the sport.

That is why Aintree has to act or risk alienating a public who find no fun in seeing brave horses killed.