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There’s been a lot of talk about the recent announcement of changes to the Grand National following April’s incident packed race that was delayed due to protestors attempting to get onto the track.
Firstly it’s important to look at the facts, a field of 39 lined up for the race with 17 completing and a thus 22 failing to complete the course.
Of those 22 seven were pulled up, eleven unseated and just four were fallers, with three of those going at the first two fences (including Hill Sixteen who was fatally injured at the first).
Of the four fallers three were making their first start over the Grand National fences with Hill Sixteen, twice a runner over the big fences including when narrowly beaten in the 2021 Becher the sole exception.
The changes themselves will see a reduced number of runners in the field, from a maximum field of 40 to a revised maximum of 34.
The first fence will also be moved 60 yards closer to the start, presumably in order to help ensure that the runners are going a sensible speed into the first.
There will also be a standing start for the Grand National, as has been employed many times in the past while there will be a reduction in the height of the eleventh fence and a rise in the minimum rating for the race from 125 to 130.
Further changes include an end to the formal parade of runners passed the grandstand with horses cantering passed the stands and turning near The Chair instead.
The easiest of these changes to address is the minimum rating, it’s been a long time since a horse rated lower than 125 got a run in the big race with just four horses rated 135 or lower getting a run in the race since 2009.
The compressing of the weights however is a major factor in this, the organiser and authorities push for a better quality of horse in the race has seen the race become a lot more competitive than it was in the 70’s, 80’s and a large part of the 90’s when we would regularly see horses running from in excess of half-a-stone out of the handicap.
As a rule these horses were safe conveyances for their riders however they often weren’t the fastest and would be behind from a relatively early stage.
Increasing the competitiveness of the race has seen more horses in touch with the leaders for longer while the previous modifications to Bechers Brook have meant that there is no real choice for riders to make with regards to whether to aim for the inner (with it’s steeper drop but shorter distance to run) or the outer (with less of a drop but giving away ground).
A movement of the fence would seem to make fence though may cause issues with the fence now closer to the road crossing at the Melling Road, though I’m sure that is something that the organisers, BHA and jockeys/trainers have looked at.
The reduction in the field size is perhaps the most notable change with many viewing the 40 runner field as the main issue.
It’s notable however just how few horses are actually brought down in the Grand National with one or two runners being the norm in recent years.
Obviously there’s a chance of serious injury and attempting to reduce such numbers is important but the fact that a lot of the non-completions in recent years have come from unseats is notable.
There’s a few questions to ask there, are the easier fences having an effect on the type of horse that trainers are targeting at the race? And are more jockeys pulling up tired horses and those not liking the course?
I can’t answer either of those questions sadly but will point out that of the 12 unseats in the 2023 renewal five came at the first two fences, a further three had gone by Valentine’s and only three made it to the starting point, one of whom unseated after a tack malfunction at the Canal Turn second time around.
While I welcome changes there have been some worrying quotes form organisers, most notably in relation to further changes.
I’m unsure what studies have taken place to determine how dangerous the race is and what factors are at play, the BHA and Aintree Racecourse don’t seem to have published any results at least as far as I can tell.
With regards to field size and the drop to 34 runners I recently attended the Velka Pardubicka in the Czech Republic.
For those unaware of the race it’s widely regarded as the world’s toughest jumps race and has upwards of 30 fences including a formidable obstacle that comes up as the fourth known as the Taxis.
This year a horse refused in front of the fence and baulked two or three others with a number falling and just over half of the field being left in the race after that fence.
The field size was 18 and included many horses with course experience.
What would the BHA and organisers do if a similar situation happened in the Grand National?
Given the raft of changes in recent years logic would dictate that despite a fluke refusal they would seek to make changes, arguably changes for the sake of them.
The Velka also has a series of four qualifying races for local runners, this may well be an idea that Aintree may want to look at to ensure that all runners on the day have race experience of the Grand National fences, particularly as dodgy jumpers so to speak are likely to come under more scrutiny going forward.
While further amendments down the line look inevitable it’s interesting to see what the future holds for the race, personally I’d like to see more races over the big fences if possible with a new Aintree meeting over Christmas looking a brilliant opportunity to stage a 3m or so handicap chase over the Grand National course.
With a further reduction in the number of runners likely and I’m sure a reduction in the distance there may even be scope to hold two staying chases over the big fences at the meeting, in addition to the Topham Trophy and the Foxhunters’.
While others will disagree that this isn’t a “slippery slope” so to speak those who are anti the Grand National aren’t in my experience fine with racing and animal sports as a whole, they view the removal of the Grand National as the first step to ending jumps racing, flat racing, greyhound racing, eventing, show jumping etc.
I’ve family from Liverpool and buying the Liverpool Echo’s Grand National Special paper with the sweepstake kit and the colours on the backpage in the days leading up to the race was always a highlight of my childhood.
I hope that many others in years to come are still able to do as I did and watch the greatest race of them all.
Please take a look at our Grand National bookies page for a list of the best betting sites to bet on the race with. Closer to the time of the race, WhichBookie’s top racing analysts will also be sharing their betting tips for the 2024 Grand National.