I HAD the pleasure of meeting Peter Nelson and his family in the run-up to the Grand National and, in more than a dozen years of journalism, I’ve never met a more genuine group of people. Nelson beamed – sporting a huge, wide, smile – every time According To Pete was mentioned.
Their Helperby home is a shrine to the horse and I know they are devastated after he lost his life at Aintree in the four-and-a-half-mile marathon last weekend along with the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised.
But there’s something rotten on the internet.
When Nelson was interviewed about his loss, early the following morning after the race, he expressed the view that he would never enter the steeplechase again, that it was “daft” and that you couldn’t make the contest any easier.
Bear in mind that Nelson had not slept when he made these comments and they look like the remarks of a man in grief.
That, however, has not stopped the garage and paper shop owner from coming under sustained attack from some commenters on The Press’ website this week, a few of whom suggested the family did not really care for the welfare of the horse.
The backlash is unsurprising – given that everything causes a furore on the world wide web and social media these days – but some of the views were a little cruel.
Like the poster who claimed it was all about the money. According To Pete won a shade over £200,000 in prizes in his 11 years. It seems like a lot of cash doesn’t it? But it costs, on average, about £25,000 a year to keep a horse in training. Greed was hardly the motivation for the Nelsons.
I had to laugh at the person who argued they stood to gain financially from huge stud fees if the horse did well in the National. Really? I have never seen a chaser go on to a lucrative career in that sphere.
There’s an obvious reason for that. Think about the size of the fence they jump.
And there must be an awful lot of vegans who visit our website.
How else could it be okay to gnash your teeth and wail at the tragic loss of an animal in a “so called sport”, to quote one contributor, but then tuck into a chicken dinner – or similar – evening after evening?
The only difference is that, in the latter case, you didn’t have to watch the animal die on terrestrial television.
An animal sent to slaughter to end up on a plate is out of sight, out of mind. Yet it is still an animal killed for your enjoyment, if not your entertainment. It doesn’t make you any less of a hypocrite.
Is it because we see horses differently to other animals? Do they conjure something in the human spirit that other creatures do not?
A poster admired them for their beauty and faithfulness, referring to Aintree as a “slaughterhouse”. Are cows, lambs, sheep, chickens and pigs any less beautiful? A slaughterhouse is the fate for millions of them every year.
One of the repeated attacks from the web warriors claimed that owners are not willing to spend their money on vets’ bills to repair these sorts of injuries so as to allow a horse a happy, and presumably long, retirement.
I do not know the exact nature of According To Pete’s injury – you would need to ask the vets at the scene to ascertain that – but I do know that, in general, it is extremely difficult to treat a horse that fractures or shatters a bone in its leg.
I’m going to defer to an excellent article mentioned by one of our posters, and written by the Guardian’s racing writer Chris Cook, which informs anyone who wants to find out why a leg injury, which rarely causes humans any problems, is so serious for a horse.
Bent bones, laminitis, loss of blood supply and the fact you can’t put them in a sling for eight weeks – their sheer size, sling sores and pneumonia are among the many complications – are just some of the reasons why euthanasia is often the only option.
I worry that if horse racing was banned, which is the stance of welfare organisation Animal Aid, the thoroughbred breed could become extinct.
They are not wild animals. They have been selectively bred by humans, over a period of about 300 years, for the specific purpose of running and jumping as fast as possible. And they continue to be selectively bred.
But I also accept that the Grand National will probably have to change if it is to have a meaningful future.
Whether that entails reducing the size of the field, or the size of the fences, public opinion and continued attrition means the people who run this race will be unable to bury their heads in the sand.
Sitting in his front room in Helperby, Nelson told me a story that didn’t make it to print but which says a lot about the horse and to those who believe these animals are forced to run against their will.
At the recent media day at Aintree a couple of weeks before the National, Norton trainer Malcolm Jefferson took “Pete” to Liverpool and galloped him down the straight for a few furlongs in front of the watching hacks and invited guests.
When the horse returned following his work-out, he could not stand still and was eagerly pacing about. It was because, Nelson said, he had been unable to jump a fence. The yearling who jumped out of his paddock and hiked over the fence liked nothing better than to leap about.
In the National, where he took to the fences with such aplomb before being brought down at the 22nd, he was in his element.
It is such a shame this story didn’t have a happy ending.