Police arrested 118 people at Aintree Racecourse as large numbers of protesters attempted to gain entry to the track – delaying the start of the flagship Grand National.
Scores of activists climbed fences at Aintree, with at least two fixing themselves to a jump using glue and lock-on devices, animal rights group Animal Rising said.
The protesters breached security fences as National runners were in the parade ring, causing a delay of 12 minutes, although racegoers helped police and event organisers to stop some from reaching the track.
A horse was destroyed after falling at the first fence – the second to die at Aintree on Saturday and the third at the three-day festival – prompting campaigners to call for jump racing to be banned.
Merseyside Police said: “We respect the right to peaceful protest and expression of views, but criminal behaviour and disorder will not be tolerated and will be dealt with robustly.”
Force Assistant Chief Constable Paul White said: “Today, as you’ve seen, there’s been a significant protest in relation to the running of the Grand National.
“This began earlier this morning, there’s been a number of protests outside and then that resulted earlier on today at about 5pm with numerous people trying to incur onto the course, which we, in partnership with the event organisers, and members of the public as well, have managed in the main to stop and and ultimately the event took place – albeit with a slight delay.”
He said protesters tried to access the course from a number of points at the far side of the track, but were removed “swiftly”.
“The perimeter of the course is four to five kilometres long so you know, that is a significant resource required to try and cover every area of that.
“We put a proportionate policing plan in place and, by and large, we were able to stop the vast majority entering onto the course, a small number did get onto the course, but, very quickly, they were removed, again in partnership with the event organiser, private security and police officers and staff.”
Mr White said 118 people were arrested for criminal damage and public nuisance offences, including some pre-emptively held before the race, and others over a protest on the M57 where activists glued themselves to the carriageway.
Protester Sarah McCaffrey, a shopworker and student, said: “Whether it’s for food or for fun, our use of animals and nature is symbolic of a relationship beyond broken.
“We’re a nation of animal lovers, but the pain these beautiful creatures experience daily does not do that label justice. We need to find ways of loving animals that don’t hurt them.
“I truly believe that we are a nation of animal lovers, every one of us. I know everyone coming to Aintree to view the races today would say they love the horses; however, the suffering experienced by them should shock us all.
“That’s why I’ve decided to put my body between those horses and death on the racecourse, rather than gamble with their lives.”
Horse Dark Raven died earlier on Saturday, and Envoye Special on Thursday, while the group said two other horses fell at the Grand National and were taken away in horse ambulances with life-threatening injuries, and the fate of another faller, Castle Robin, in an earlier race, remained unknown.
Animal Aid’s horse racing consultant Dene Stansall said: “Jump racing must be banned to prevent the brutal horrors seen today at Aintree and this week, from happening again.
“Innocent race horses’ lives taken from them in the name of entertainment and gambling. Aintree, the worst of all racecourses, is a disgrace and the Jockey Club and British racing should hang their heads in utter shame at what we have seen over the past three days.”
Many racegoers at Aintree did not seem to notice the protest, and cheered on the horses as they passed.
Christine Maybin, 29, from Antrim, Northern Ireland, at the races with Dwayne McGurk, 31, said: “We noticed the delay but we didn’t know it was because of protesters, we thought they were fixing the fences.”
Mr McGurk said: “The delay didn’t affect us, we just got another drink in. We’ve had an unbelievable day here.”
Earlier on Saturday, Merseyside Police said three people had been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, with a 25-year-old woman from London and a 55-year-old man from Greater Manchester arrested outside the racecourse on Saturday, and a 33-year-old woman from the London area held in the Greater Manchester area earlier in the day.
Nathan McGovern, spokesperson for Animal Rising, said: “These actions show that the police are spending more time chasing peaceful protestors than addressing the real issues that exist, such as our broken relationship with animals and the climate emergency.”
A police dispersal zone was put in place around the racecourse amid the threat of disruption.
North West Motorway Police said on Twitter: “We have a number of people sat on the M57 at junction 2 northbound – motorway is closed.”
National Highways said traffic was stopped in both directions on the motorway – between junctions one and two – shortly before 5.15pm, but by 6pm the southbound carriageway was reopened and northbound traffic was being diverted via a slip road.
There were delays of more than an hour on the road, which runs from the M62 to Aintree.
Pictures showed protesters wearing pink T-shirts on the carriageway.
“The police and our security teams, who form part of a strong visible presence on course, dealt with the incident swiftly and decisively. The pre-race parade was cancelled as a result of the short delay.
“The Randox Grand National Festival sees thousands of people come to enjoy racing and a great atmosphere, with millions following on television, radio and online.
“While the actions of a small number of individuals were intended to disrupt the event, the safety and security of everyone on course will always be our number one priority.”