Jockey Tony McCoy defends Grand National at Aintree

By Frank KeoghBBC Sport

Champion jockey Tony McCoy has defended the Grand National after critics said the race was too tough following the deaths of two horses on Saturday.

McCoy told BBC Sport he believes racing and the Aintree course have made big strides in improving welfare.

"In every walk of life, you have things that don't turn out the way people would like them to," he said.

"I personally don't think the sport could be in any better shape for horses or jockeys."

Ornais and Dooneys Gate died after falling at the fourth and sixth (Becher's Brook) fences respectively.

Some newspaper articles in the wake of this year's contest have been criticial of the four-and-a-half mile marathon, but McCoy said there were elements of the coverage that "did not warrant talking about".

In an earlier race on Grand National day, jockey Peter Toole suffered serious head injuries and has been in a coma in hospital.

And four days later, amateur jockey Richard Hawkins was taken to intensive care at a Somerset hospital after a heavy fall at Taunton. It is not yet known if the jockeys will make full recoveries.

"You are always going to have falls. It's probably been highlighted a little bit more because a meeting like Aintree has more people watching," added BBC Sports Personality of the Year McCoy, who rode his 2010 winner Don't Push It into third.

"The two falls have been relatively close together, which creates the idea that the sport is very dangerous.

"It is part and parcel of the job, but being in hospital is not a great place to be."

Tony McCoy (left) on Don't Push It in the Grand National
Tony McCoy (left) on Don't Push It in the Grand National

As temperatures reached 20C, several horses - included the winner Ballabriggs - appeared dehydrated after the 2011 Grand National.

Aintree officials had laid on buckets of water in the parade ring and at the finish.

Two of the 30 fences were missed out for the first time in 164 runnings of the National as runners were ordered to bypass obstacles where the stricken horses had come to grief.

Animal Aid, which describes itself as a not-for-profit company, has been among leading opponents of the National.

Earlier this week, director Andrew Tyler stated: "We've heard claims that the Aintree course is being made safer, safer, safer. No it's not.

"The Grand National should be banned. It's a deliberately hazardous, challenging and predictably lethal event."

He added that the race's combination of a big field, high fences, long distance and crowd noise meant it was extremely dangerous for the horses taking part.

A statement from the British Horseracing Authority read: "As we do every year, the authority will review the meeting and look at how we can realistically reduce the risk in the Grand National further.

"That is the job of Aintree racecourse and the authority, and we will continue to work with animal welfare groups as well as seeking feedback from racing's participants.

"We are listening to the concerns and suggestions that have been raised and will continue to strive to reduce risk, whether that is in specific relation to the Grand National or in any other race.

"At this stage, it would be wrong for us to rule anything out or have a knee-jerk reaction."

Saturday's National was the second fastest in the race's history, with spring sunshine drying out the ground to make conditions faster.

Officials at Aintree said they were "desperately sad" about the deaths of Ornais, trained by Paul Nicholls, and the Willie Mullins-trained 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 - the horses, the jockeys, the spectators are able to participate in safety and comfort," said an Aintree spokesman.

"The racing surface at Aintree is of the highest standard and is watered to ensure the safest possible racing ground, racing on ground no faster than good.

"Many modifications have taken place over the years to improve safety for horses and riders, including changes to the fences, take-off and landing areas and improvements to the layout of running rails, all of which improve safety.

"In consultation with the RSPCA and the British Horseracing Authority, bypassing lanes were introduced on the Grand National course three years ago, which not only allow room for horses to be treated quicker but also provide escape lanes for loose horses."

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