The Grand National: Cruel death trap or sport's ultimate test?

Published 7:06 AM ET, Thu April 4, 2013
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This Saturday, more than 600 million people in 140 countries around the world will tune in to watch Britain's Grand National. But is the historic race a cruel death trap or the ultimate sporting challenge? Paul Ellisa/Getty Images/File
Aintree is one of the toughest steeplechase courses in the world, with around 40 thoroughbreds leaping over 30 fences during the 10-minute race. Mike Hewitt/Getty Images/File
Thirty-six horses have died in the last 50 years of the race and animal rights activists have called for an overhaul of the course. "People see horses fall, and that's been a sick spectacle that has promoted the race," said Dene Stansall, horse racing consultant at Animal Aid. Alex Livesey/Getty Images/File
Despite the deaths, the race is still the most popular sporting event in Britain, with a national TV audience of 11 million. "Each Aintree fence is unique and the challenge is just about as testing as it gets in sports," said Ladbrokes betting agency spokesman, David Williams. Andrew Yates/Getty Images/File
Unlike other jump races, where fences are a uniform size, each fence at the Grand National is unique. The most difficult of these is Beechers Brook, which has a 2-meter drop. Last year two horses had to be put down after falling at the notorious fence.
"If we didn't have horse racing, those thoroughbreds wouldn't exist -- that's what they're bred to do," Baker said. Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images/File
The betting public don't appear to be put off by horse deaths, wagering around $300 million on the race every year. "It's the one race that goes beyond the horse racing audience -- everyone is involved in a Grand National sweepstake," said Aintree managing director, John Baker. Scott Barbour/Getty Images/File
Dramatic falls are nothing new, as this 1909 painting shows. Launched in 1839, the race holds a special place in the public's imagination, and placing a bet has become a unique British tradition. Hulton Archive/Getty Images/File
The meeting has a unique carnival atmosphere, with the local Liverpool crowd renowned for their flamboyant style and revelry. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images/File