Mullins gets 2 winners at Aintree Festival

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LIVERPOOL, England (AP) Two horses died after being pulled up in a somber start to the Aintree Festival on Thursday.

Clonbanan Lad and Marasonnien died after being pulled up by their jockeys in the Fox Hunters' Chase, and later collapsing, the British Horseracing Authority said. Professor Chris Proudman, veterinary adviser at Aintree, said ''neither (of the) incidents were associated with a fall.''

''You can never remove all risk completely from any sport, including horseracing,'' Proudman said in a statement released by the BHA, ''but from 90,000 runners each year, British Racing has a fatality rate of less than 0.2 percent, which research found is far lower than horses simply exercising in a field.''

Equine safety is brought into sharp focus at Aintree because of the feared fences used in the Grand National Steeplechase, the world's most gruelling horse race. Twenty-one horses died over those fences from 2001-14.

The BHA has modified the course in recent years in the face of stinging criticism. Changes include restyling fences - removing wooden stakes and replacing them with a more forgiving plastic material - moving the start forward and away from the grandstands to create a calmer environment, and levelling the landing side of some fences.

The deaths overshadowed a strong start to the festival by Willie Mullins, who is bidding to dislodge Paul Nicholls as Britain's champion horse trainer and had two winners.

Annie Power was one of seven winners for Mullins at last month's Cheltenham Festival and she was just as impressive in the Aintree Hurdle, cruising home by 18 lengths and justifying her status as 4-9 favorite for the race.

That completed a double for Mullins, with Apple's Jade having already won the Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle.

The Irishman is attempting to become the first overseas trainer to be champion trainer since Vincent O'Brien in 1954. Mullins started the Aintree Festival trailing Nicholls in the title race by about 250,000 pounds ($350,000), and his two winners will see him almost wipe out the deficit with two weeks left.

Cue Card easily won the Betfred Bowl, making partial amends for falling in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Cue Card won by nine lengths after accelerating away from Don Poli and Djakadam.

The Grand National is run on Saturday.