In good or evil, the iconic spring race in Aintree, near Liverpool, has to leave its mark every year. The 2020 edition was one of the first victims of the pandemic: it had to be canceled altogether. A virtual reality simulation took place, to offer fans some consolation. Still, clearly it was nowhere close to the real thing. In April 2021, the race did occur, but behind closed doors for the first time in history. Luckily, fans were able to follow bet-grand-national and similar services, which are always available to support noble equine sports.
Both sad and joyful events accompanied the Grand National. The passing of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was announced just before the second day of the meeting. A two-minute silence before racing was introduced as a tribute to the late royal consort. Jockeys wore black armbands on their silks, and the Union Jack was lowered on the Queen Mother Stand.
Sadly, there were other casualties. Two horses died of their injuries during the races. Houx Gris and The Long Mile were the latest of 55 horses that died during the Grand National since the year 2000. The racecourse at Aintree is a difficult one. On April 10th, 40 runners were starting at 5:15 pm, but only 15 made it to the finishing line. What happened to the other 25? Four horses – Lake View Lad, Double Shuffle, Canelo and Vieux Lion Rouge – fell. The riders of Magic Of Light, Minellacelebration, Chris’s Dream and Yala Enki were unseated. The jockey of the last one, Bryony Frost, was injured quite badly and had to be taken to hospital. Ballyoptic refused, and Ami Desbois was brought down. All the others pulled up.
The Long Mile, to make his tragedy worse, did not fall on one of the tricky fences of the racecourse but on a flat section. The seven-year-old gelding, trained by Philip Dempsey and owned by J.P. McManus, broke a hind leg and was euthanized after leaving the race early. Animal Aid reacted by calling for a ban on the three-day meeting. They revealed that there had been another deadly incident on the second day when Houx Gris suffered a fatal injury. He was just four years old. In 2013 new safety measures were introduced, and since then, only two fatal incidents were registered among 316 runners in total. Despite this, the Grand National is regarded as one of the most dangerous races in the world.
The risks do not discourage the ladies from taking part. And the 2021 edition will go down in history as the first to be won by a female jockey. Rachel Blackmore rode Minella Times to victory, earning one more title for Ireland. The Irish gained all the first five places, with Balko Des Flos, Any Second Now, Burrows Saint, and Farclas following the triumphing eight-year-old bay gelding and his lady jockey. Women were banned from running in the Grand National as late as 1975. Rachel Blackmore’s victory was thus a very joyful breakthrough. Still, the high number of incidents during the race, including the fatal one, leave a shadow upon the Aintree racecourse.