1993: the year the Grand National was sabotaged – with help from Special Branch

Chris PlowmanOne of those stories that make you wonder why political groups were infiltrated at all. Apparently protecting the identity of the undercover officer – Matt Rayner – was more important than sharing the intelligence he had gathered about the plot he was involved in to disturb the Grand National horse races. One for the Pitchford Inquiry to look in to… Must have happened more often, how often?

Repost of RedBlackGreen blog
Originally posted 10 April 2016

How an undercover police officer played a key role in an action which cost the betting industry over £70 million.

Yesterday about 100 people demonstrated near the entrance of the Grand National against the cruelty of horse racing. Good though this turnout was – and not to mention another demo there on Friday and also one in London outside Channel 4 who broadcast the race – these protests will not by themselves bring about the end of the world’s most infamous steeplechase.

Many years ago, however, activists decided to do just by sabotaging the race. In 1993 they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams as it had to be abandoned and became “the race that never was”. The animal rights dimension has largely been written out of the story, however. Now for the first time online you will hear what really happened and also it will be revealed how an undercover police officer played a key role in an action which cost the betting industry over £70 million.

There had been protests against the Grand National during the eighties but a more militant campaign began after the deaths of four horses in 1989 and seven more the following year. The callous attitude of the racing fraternity was summed up by champion jockey Josh Gifford who said: “I don’t know what all the fuss has been about. In this game horses get injured and killed every day, even exercising on the gallops.”

In 1992, there were protests by local activists both inside and outside the track and some disruption was caused. That year a new national organisation was launched called Action to Abolish the Grand National. It spearheaded a national campaign and produced leaflets, press releases and merchandise not only about the National but horse racing, show jumping and eventing in general, demanding that the BBC stop broadcasting equestrian sports and the public stop gambling on horses or any other animal abused in the name of sport.

The Grand National campaign was part of an upsurge in animal rights activism in the early nineties. One of the main targets was Boots the Chemist, which had its own vivisection laboratory, and about ten people from London Boots Action Group went to Aintree for the protest in 1993. The driver was a well-liked member of the group named Matt Rayner, who regularly used his van for demos, sabbing and direct action. Although the journey was over 400 miles there and back, he asked passengers only for what they could afford. The difference in petrol money was made up from the group’s coffers.

A small demonstration at the entrance to the course took place on the Friday but by the next day there were at least 100 people. The vast majority stood outside leafleting but a small group decided to take direct action. This account was given was given by the Aintree 15 in the CAW Bulletin No.11 published later that year:

Moments before the start eight activists jumped onto the course and occupied the ground in front of the first fence. Police and security guards were taken completely by surprise and the start was aborted. The course took some time to clear and just as the horses were lined up for the second time, another seven animal rights people leapt over the barriers and ran chanting towards the start.

If the officials were taken aback by the first protest, they were dumbstruck by the second. No-one seemed to know what to do, protesters ran back and forth, security guards and police vainly trying to bring them down with rugby tackles as the crowd cheered each new arrest.

Eventually all were caught and the course cleared for the third time, but by now the starter was so nervous that he made a complete hash of raising the tape and horses were called back yet again. After a delay of nearly 20 minutes the start was aborted again but the leading jockeys ignored the recall flag thinking it was another protest and continued on the course.

The race by this time was a complete shambles. Nine horses were spared the ordeal entirely when they failed to start and only seven bothered to complete the course, the rest of the 42 starters having realised that the race was abandoned.

The protest cost us very little, and all the protesters were released without charge after four hours in custody, but it cost the bookmakers and racing fraternity £75 million in returned bets and millions more in pre-race marketing. What we really gained was the satisfaction of knowing that almost all the horses escaped unscathed, most not even attempting the course. One suffered a bruised tendon but in the circumstances we are grateful because his injuries would have been far worse if past years are anything to go by.

Newspapers called it “The Grand Farcical ” and said it was “an unforgivable shambles, a terribly public one”, but in general the media blamed the debacle on the failure of the starting system and the weather (there was torrential rain) and largely ignored the occupation. An exception was the Independent which stated: “The disruption of the world’s most-watched horse race was a victory for animal rights protesters who staged a demonstration at the first fence for the second year running.”

The Aintree 15 issued a warning: “We have a message for the horse racing fraternity, the bookmakers and everyone else involved in cruelty: don’t bother planning your next event, people have had enough of your cruelty, and now we are going to stop you.” By March 1994 ARC News was asking it this would be “The Last Grand National?”, while Action Against the Grand National said it “hoped that the march and demonstration will be even bigger this year.”

Five days before the race, three workers at an animal rescue centre were arrested on the Aintree racecourse, charged with conspiracy to cause criminal damage and remanded in custody until 18 May. Nothing was left to chance: more than 200 police were drafted into the area plus an undercover team and an instant response unit. On the day of the National, 20 activists were arrested as they made their way to the demonstration outside the entrance and three more were arrested inside the event. Fences around the racecourse were improved, which made it much harder to get on the track. The race went ahead without disruption.

There was another contingent of protesters from London, once again driven by Matt Rayner. This time people were asked to contribute £7 towards petrol money. Nearly twenty years later it was revealed that Rayner was really an undercover cop who worked for a secret Special Branch unit called the Special Demonstration Squad. He was embedded with animal rights activists for five years and like many spies at that time he used the identity of a dead child (his real name is still a mystery).

While Rayner himself did not take part in the occupation in 1993, about six or seven of those he transported to Aintree did. During the journey people talked about invading the racecourse and he would have been privy to the likelihood of it happening. Would the action have been so successful without the activists Rayner brought from London? It’s impossible to give a definitive answer but possibly not.

What happened on 3 April 1993 was truly remarkable. Fifteen brave people ran onto the track of the world’s most famous horse race – without concern for their own welfare – to say no to animal cruelty. Despite being arrested all were released without charge within a few hours. In those days all they would have been guilty of was trespass. This action caused £75 million loss to the racing industry and in terms of economic sabotage it is probably still the single most successful feat of direct action ever carried out in the name of animal rights. And what is most amazing of all is that the Met Police played a significant role in the whole affair!

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