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Animal rights campaigners have staged a protest outside the headquarters of Channel 4, accusing the Grand National broadcaster of cynically exploiting the brutality of the world's most famous horse race.

Around 80 campaigners gathered in central London to chant "shame on Channel 4" before reading out a list of the 23 horses that have died during the Grand National since 1989.

Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid accused the broadcaster of deliberately ramping up the danger inherent in the steeplechase, in particular condemning a commercial promoting its first broadcast of the steeplechase as "cynical, callous and pretty disgusting."

The promotional advert shows horses leaping over cars and park benches with several jockeys falling from their steed and concludes with the tagline "the original extreme sport".

Tyler, director of the UK's second largest animal rights organisation, said: "Channel 4 are doing what they do best, which is to court controversy in a way that is also designed to generate outrage. The Grand National is extremely hazardous, deliberately so and they are playing up to that fact."

Two horses died on the Aintree course before the Grand National even began, despite a series of changes to the course that were meant to improve safety. The second death came on Friday when Little Josh, considered a strong jumper, fell at the 15th fence.

One campaigner, Billie Hands, 53, a jewellery designer from London, said: "The race is presented as dangerous and exciting entertainment, but they don't discuss the deaths. Why don't they show that? They shouldn't ignore the deaths."

Nigel Francis, 52, a financial advisor from Portsmouth, added: "They've obviously made a ratings decision but Channel 4 has got a moral and ethical duty to present it in a balanced view."

Veterinary surgeon Caroline Allen, 38, from London said that she had decided to protest because of wider concerns over equine welfare relating to the way race horses were bred, looked after and treated.

The changes to the Aintree course, including the softening of the infamous Becher's Brook, came after last year's favourite, Synchronised, died during the race. The tape of Synchronised's last minutes, studied by equine psychologists, has been used by critics as proof that the horses have a profound and primitive fear of its notorious fences. Another horse, According to Pete, was put down after he fell at Becher's Brook in 2012.

The BBC, which used to screen the race, was criticised for effectively ignoring the black-draped enclosures officials erect around stricken horses, and for announcing the deaths hurriedly at the end of the programme.

Animal welfare campaigners argue the National remains unreasonably dangerous because of the height and angle of the fences, the length of the race and the large number of competitors, 40.
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