Two Deaths, One Race: Is The Grand National Course Too Dangerous for Horses?

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Getty Images / Mike Hewitt

M. P. Walsh parts company with Quolibet at the 11th fence during the John Smith's Grand National Steeple Chase.

In the wake of Elizabeth Taylor’s death, many remember her starring role in National Velvet. A young teenager riding to victory in the Grand National Steeplechase provided a fairytale ending for viewers all over the world. But how accurate was that depiction?Any sports competition lends itself to fairytale endings, but as Saturday’s Grand National indicated, the race doles out dangers as well as trophies.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, the Grand National is a four and a half-mile course that asks horse and rider to jump 30 ominous fences in their quest to complete two laps around the Aintree Racecourse track in Liverpool, England. Regarded by some as the purest athletic test of horse and rider and others as too dangerous to be ethically appropriate, Britain’s version of the Triple Crown creates controversy over more than how to mix a mint julep.

(More on TIME.com: See the top 10 endurance competitions)

This year, a series of events alarmed animal rights activists. Only 19 of the 40 competing horses reached the finish line and two died in the attempt. Traveling at literally breakneck speeds, horses fell, threw their jockeys off, were pulled up, and got knocked down by others falling.

According to Dr. Mark Kennedy, a senior lecturer in animal welfare at Anglia Ruskin University, the grueling nature of the long event contributes to its hazards. He tells BBC News that the risk of horse fatality in a steeplechase is six times that of a flat race, at six deaths in 1,000 starts.

The two deaths of Saturday’s race are, however, outliers rather than the norm. BBC reports that from 2000 to 2010 only six horses died total of 449 that started in those 11 runnings of the race. So while it’s not an annual occurrence, it may be biennial.

It’s not just the horses that suffer: a jockey competing in an earlier race on Grand National Day was put into a medically induced coma for two days after falling and sustaining head injuries. And winning jockey Jason Maguire told BBC News he almost withdrew from the race after a fall Thursday left him with stitches and a broken thumb.

Race organizers do realize the problem, but some people involved describe recently imposed safety measures as counter-effective. A veteran trainer said that the decision to reduce “drops” on the landing-side of fences actually has made the race more dangerous by encouraging competitors to travel faster. “It has encouraged the horses to go quicker,” trainer Ginger McCain told the Daily Mail. “It is speed that kills.”

Risk is always a factor, and that’s true in many sports. It’s a reality that must be calculated and it’s up to the British to decide whether the risks justify the event.

(More on TIME.com: Are the winter games too dangerous?)

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