Another horse dies at the Grand National - what happens next?

ITV News correspondent Peter Smith hears from determined protesters and a horse trainer mourning his 'lovely, lovely' horse

Protests and another horse death has thrust allegations of animal rights abuses at the Grand National into the spotlight once again.

But one trainer is blaming the animal rights activists who disrupted the event for his horse's death.

Protesters stormed the event at Aintree, Merseyside, over the weekend, in a campaign against horse-racing.

More than 100 members of the Animal Rising group were arrested after they breached the racecourse and attempted to attach themselves to fences and railings.

But the trainer of Hill Sixteen, a horse that died after falling at the first fence of the Grand National, has told ITV News he blamed the protesters themselves for the death.

ITV News explores the long-running debate over animal welfare at the Grand National - and what happens next.

What is the Grand National?

The Grand National is a horse race held annually at the Aintree racecourse in Merseyside.

The National is one of the last races of a wider three-day festival, which usually takes place in the second week of April.

The steeplechase, first run in 1839, is one of the biggest days in the British sporting calendar.

What happened at this year's race?

Protesters, from rights group Animal Rising, breached security fences ahead of the race, causing a delay of 12 minutes.

The group said at least two of its members fixed themselves to a jump on the racecourse using glue and lock-on devices.

Three horses – Hill Sixteen, Dark Raven and Envoye Special – died during the three-day Aintree Festival last week.

The trainer of Hill Sixteen blamed the Animal Rising protesters for his horse's death.

The horses were kept in a holding area after the activists breached the racecourse, and Sandy Thomson said he is in no doubt that this disruption caused the animals distress. He said Hill Sixteen had never fallen at a fence before.

Mr Thomson told ITV News: "I'm absolutely furious about what they've done, because they've used an event to further their cause and they've had no thought about the welfare of the horses.

"Over the last nine years there have been an average of one or two fallers at the second fence and this year there was eight, so the statistics show that something was very different."

Merseyside Police arrested 118 people after the demonstration.

Protesters on the track at Aintree. Credit: PA Images

Why did the protesters storm the track?

On social media, Animal Rising said their actions "aimed to prevent" the death of horses.

“The actions taken at Aintree yesterday aimed to prevent harm from coming to horses in the Grand National, with Hill Sixteen sadly falling in the race itself – a death that would have been prevented if the race had not been run," spokesperson Nathan McGovern said.

“Supporters of Animal Rising do not take the risk of arrest lightly, but taking action to protect animals and nature is more important than upholding business as usual."

Why are protesters targeting horse-racing?

Many animal rights groups, like Animal Rising, say horse-racing is unsafe for the animals, and highlight the numbers of deaths on and off the track each year.

But racing bosses defended the sport after Saturday's deaths, saying it's "safer than it has ever been".

Nevin Truesdale, chief executive of The Jockey Club, which owns the Aintree racecourse in Merseyside, said measures including softer ground and smaller hurdles have been imposed in recent years.

He told Sky News: “We can’t ignore what happened in terms of the fatalities we saw and every fatality we’re seeing is one too many.

“To see three fatalities – and condolences to all connections across the event – obviously it’s something we will be analysing and reviewing.”

“The fact that 99.8% of horses across all of racing come back from races safely – that’s come down by a third over the past 10 years – the sport is safer, the Grand National is safer than it’s ever been."

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British Horseracing Authority chief executive Julie Harrington added: “British racing works tirelessly to improve the sport’s safety record and reduce avoidable risk. Every incident is reviewed by the BHA alongside the racecourse and other bodies.

"As a sport we have for years shown great determination and commitment to improve welfare standards by taking measured scientific, evidence-based, regulatory and education-based steps."

How many horses have died at the Grand National?

The League Against Cruel Sports said the horse death toll at the Aintree Festival now stands at 62 since 2000 – with 16 killed in the Grand National, including two last year.

Emma Judd, head of campaigns and communications at the League Against Cruel Sports, said in the wake of the latest deaths: “It cannot be more apparent that it is time for change and for the introduction of tighter safety measures in the Grand National, at the Aintree racecourse and at racecourses across the UK."

The RSPCA also called for safety reforms. Its policy director, Emma Slawinski, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “One of the things we particularly see at the Grand National is a very big field, so lots of horses running together.

“That, of course, causes issues when horses fall and can get in the way of other horses and cause accidents in that way.

“The other thing that we think needs to change very urgently is to see an end of the use of the whip for encouragement – hitting the horses to make them run faster.

“We know that that actually causes more accidents, it makes accidents more likely, makes injuries more likely, so we’d like to see that reform happen as well.”

Three horses died at Aintree. Credit: PA Images

What happens next?

The Jockey Club's chief, Mr Truesdale, said it "will not stop in terms of our relentless drive to improve welfare standards”.

Ms Harrington added that a “painstaking” analysis will take place in an attempt to understand what caused three fatalities over the three days of the meeting.

Animals Rising told ITV News they will target other major racing events with protests.

“This is just the start of many peaceful actions to really create a national conversation about our fractured connection with animals and our natural world this summer, whether they result in arrests or not,” its spokesperson said.