Steeplechase thrilling, hazardous spectacle

James Lawton, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:35 PM ET

Last week some of us got quite exercised over the evasions of Augusta National chairman Billy Payne on the question of whether the woman in charge of one of the Masters' chief sponsors, who also happens to prefer a day on the ski slopes to one on the fairways, should be handed a fabled green jacket.

Others rated the issue, at best, as a squall concerning nothing so much as a small piece of rather grubby symbolism. For the latter, yesterday's running of the world's most exhausting and hazardous steeplechase was an infinitely better guide to the potential of a woman's place in at least one branch of high class sport.

This was entirely due to the participation in the Grand National of two brilliant Irish jockeys, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh.

They were competing, on extremely competitive animals, to be the first woman to win the great chase. Both 27, both steeped in the aristocracy of Irish racing -- Carberry was aboard Organisedconfusion trained by her uncle Arthur Moore -- they carried far more than the hopes of fervent warriors on the gender discrimination front.

They were authentic heroines in their own right, which is to say about as representative of tokenism as Tiger Woods when he engulfed Augusta as the first black winner at the age of 21.

Carberry made her own great breakthrough at Fairyhouse last year when she won the Irish Grand National on yesterday's mount. It was a ride of consummate professionalism and underlined the nerve and the quality which, going into yesterday's National, had taken her around the formidable course unscathed on three occasions.

She didn't make it yesterday, falling at the eighth fence, known as Canal Turn, but Walsh did with a brilliant ride that took her into third place on Sea Bass, a contender which started as 8-1 favourite under the weight of betting by the jockey's legion of admirers.

"I got a great spin round on Sea Bass, I made a few mistakes but each time he put me right," she said. "When we took the lead two fences out I thought we had a great chance but I'm still very proud to be the highest woman finisher in such a great race. Can a girl win one day? Why not?"

However, by the time she was saying this, the question had been pushed somewhat into the margins by a much older issue.

It came with the decision to put down Synchronised, who a few weeks ago was the hero of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Yesterday the horse stumbled after clearing the sixth fence, the screens went up and vets decided there was no saving him.

The disaster would have been poignant in any circumstances but there was a special edge to it in that Synchronised threw his rider, the legendary A.P. McCoy before the start. He then ran free for several minutes, delaying the race and, as it happened, making the last unfettered run of a great champion.

Inevitably there will be fresh cries for the ending of an event which in the opinion of many has always brought unacceptable danger and equine casualty rate.

The race authorities, who also had to contend with the death of another horse -- According to Pete -- said that once again they would study ways of making the race safer.

It is a task not unlike threading a needle while wearing a blindfold. A hundred different circumstances can conjure potentially deadly danger, a fact demonstrated by the demise of Synchronised. The fence had been safely negotiated when a false step sent McCoy flying from the saddle.

The dilemma will remain as long as the chase is run over giant fences and with a field as big as yesterday's of 40. Do you glory in the courage of the horses and the men and draw a veil over the inherent risk?

Some of us do this with the same ambivalence with which we take our seats at ringside. Horses run and jump, men fight. One representative of The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said that he didnŪt call for a ban but a reduction of the danger. Other pressure groups said that the race had to go the way of bear-baiting, or bull-fighting in Barcelona. It had to be consigned to a barbaric past.

The argument, at least for an uproarious majority, didn't seem so persuasive as Daryl Jacob urged Neptune Collonges home ahead of Sunnyhillboy in a photo finish -- the closest in the history of the race.

Katie Walsh was just a few strides away. And Sychronised was gone. The cheering was immense. As it invariably, right up to when the complications set in.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.


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