I don’t know how many years ago it was when a particular cousin of mine and I first disagreed over the Seder table (the rest of the family had been doing it for years!). At the time I had started to take more of an interest in animal welfare and Pesach that year happened to coincide with the Grand National. I explained how I disapproved of the race because of the constant whipping of the horses and the risk of equine death. His response startled me – “They were born to be raced. What else are horses for?” It was a very urbanite-North-London response. Horses, of course, existed for millions of years before human beings ever thought to jump on their backs and race them, let alone use them for agriculture. The idea that they exist for human beings, that they are born in order to be raced, denies a basic fact of evolution - that these creatures existed for no purpose other than existence long before we ever arrived on the scene.
I haven’t asked my cousin what he thought of last week’s Grand National, in which two horses died and a jockey was so injured that he has had to be put into a medically-induced coma. I have written in other places about sport and have indicated my preference for getting people to play sport rather than grow fat watching it. My support for particular sports declines further when the participants – human or other - are killed as a result of their participation. Yet worse still is the idea of gambling on a sport in which participants are killed - it’s not “just a flutter” when a person profits from the death of another living being.
Perhaps the annual carnage of the Grand National can remind us that God gave us dominion over all the fish, the birds and land animals (1:28) and that it is our choice what that responsibility can mean – we can either help them flourish or we can work them to death. While most moden Jewish commentators will baulk at the idea that dominion over the animals ever meant that we have the right to do whatever we want with them, there were commentators who held this opinion, even if they were always in the clear minority.
Apparently the Grand National is "the greatest horse race of all." But what is it that makes it great - the possibility of death? How does that not make it "the most perilous horse race of all?" Is it really great to be racing animals so close to death? The Grand National, then, is really a test of who we are and what we do with the awesome Divine responsibility bestowed upon us… is our dominion benevolent or callous, kind or cruel? I would suggest that this week’s Grand National does not provide a favourable answer and maybe it's time for us to tip the scales towards benevolence and kindness.