When Special Branch helped sabotage the Grand National

Jockeys line up at the start of the 1993 Grand National, the only time the race has ever been abandoned.

The Grand National has become symbolic of the cruelty of horse racing. In recent years there have been protests at Aintree but these have always been controlled by the police. In 1993, however, activists  succeeded beyond their wildest dreams as the steeplechase had to be abandoned and became “the race that never was”. The animal rights dimension has largely been written out of the story but here you will find out what really happened and it will be revealed how an undercover police officer played a key role in an action which cost the racing industry £75 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 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 ” describing it as “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) largely ignoring 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.”

On the following Monday the Independent published a letter from J Stuart and C Jones from Manchester who said: “As two of the activists involved in the Grand National run-on protest on Saturday we’d like the opportunity to give our side of the story.” They went to to say how press censorship of the action meant they hadn’t received the credit they deserved for the cancellation of the event:

“The BBC failed to televise our protest and the press has played down our role in the day’s events. However the comments of jockeys, race officials and journalists support our view that we were responsible for stopping the race. The official inquiry need look no further than the run-on for the reason why the Grand National ended as it did.”

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.”

The authorities knew full well  who was to blame for 1993’s “fiasco” as revealed by the newspaper headline “Welcome to Fortress Aintree”: “The Aintree authorities have thrown up a six-foot ring of steel…in a £1 million bid to keep animal rights militants at bay tomorrow. Fences are being guarded round the clock and more than 200 uniformed police will be on duty, backed up by plain-clothes units, fast response squads and a helicopter.”

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. 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. Twenty years later it was revealed that Rayner was really an undercover cop who worked for a secret Special Branch unit called the Special Demonstrations 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). In 1996 he claimed he was going to work abroad and after sending letters to friends was never heard from again.

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.

Most amazing of all the role played by the Met Police in the whole affair. Not only did Rayner drive to Aintree in 1993 but he repeated it the following year, knowing full well that some some of the protesters he’d transported helped cause disruption. Rayner’s manager at the SDS, Bob Lambert,  was a notorious agent provocateur with a hands-on approach that included placing incendiary devices in department stores that sold fur.  It seems Lambert demanded a similar level of involvement from his agents.

What’s more, while the Met was conniving with the protesters, another police force was trying to stop the action going ahead. On the eve of the race, newspaper reports said the racecourse had agreed “a fluid plan…with the Merseyside Police and Special Branch…Among the weapons at Special Branch’s disposal are snatch squads to eject troublemakers from the course and bolt-cutters to stop protesters chaining themselves to fences.”

The same newspaper warned of  a “2,000-strong army of activists…including the rent-a-mob variety wiling to march under any banner for a punch-up” and said there were reports that racecourse security had been infiltrated by activists who would be disguised as guards.  No source was given for this ridiculous claim but if it wasn’t invented by the journalist, it was more than likely circulated by the police themselves.

The only people doing the infiltrating at Aintree that day were Special Branch. One section had a spy in a key role transporting protesters from London – and probably other spies amongst demonstrators too – while another was doing all it could to prevent the race from being sabotaged. And as is often the case, the police themselves were the main beneficiaries as there was no shortage of work for them to do.

Animal Aid on Aintree 2016: http://www.animalaid.org.uk/h/n/NEWS/news_horse//3427//

Matt Rayner profile: http://powerbase.info/index.php/Matt_Rayner_(alias)

See also: https://network23.org/redblackgreen/2015/07/30/flashback-30-july-1995-police-spy-dresses-up-at-pagan-garden-party/

This is a revised version of an article which first appeared on the blog Red Black Green on 10 April 2016: https://network23.org/redblackgreen/2016/04/10/1993-the-year-the-grand-national-was-sabotaged-with-help-from-special-branch/

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  1. Spycop Matt Rayner and me protesting against Boots: the story behind the photo – ARspycatcher

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