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The protests by Animal Rising and the unfortunate death of Hill Sixteen at the first fence in the Grand National has once again put the spotlight on racing with regards to welfare issues.
While the sport is undoubtedly looking at ways to improve the big race, and races in general it’s possibly not changing as quickly as social attitudes demand.
Recent surveys, however flawed, seem to show more support for those against the Grand National and racing than was the case ten years ago for example.
Whatever changes are made should be evidence based, which I’m not certain has always been the case with perception seemingly playing a large part in previous adaptations.
The Grand National is the one big day of the year when the whole of the UK’s eyes are on the racing world.
It’s been this way for many a year and while there was a time in the 1970’s when the race was in real doubt thankfully Cyril Stein, Mike Dillon, Ladbrokes and Red Rum came along to help save the famous race.
Since then the race itself has changed dramatically, the days of the big drop at Bechers Brook and a risk/reward inside vs. outside approach to the famous fence are gone with no real incentive to go wide these days.
The weights have been compressed too so we don’t have the situation like in 1995 when the presence of Gold Cup hero Master Oats meant that 21 of the runners carried 10-0, a figure which would have been higher with Gold Cap, Tinryland, Superior Finish and Camelot Knight all carrying more than their allotted weight.
A quick look at the 1988 renewal of the Grand National suggested there were around 20 lengths between first and last jumping Bechers Brook the first time; this year it was around 14 lengths.
While Bechers isn’t the test it once was, it’s undoubtedly still a major fence on the course although reading stats and data posted by others suggest the real issue these days, at least with fallers comes at the first two or three fences.
There’s been plenty of research done into the Grand National, recent changes and the various outcomes by social media users and I’d hope that the BHA and the executive at Aintree will look into the data before making any changes.
The sport first needs to identify what the actual issue is. Is it the rate of fallers? The fatalities? The aesthetics of the race? The reputation?
Addressing the last point the Grand National has long been regarded as the toughest test of a racehorse, at worst you’d place it second behind the Velka Pardubicka but that is a debate for another day.
That reputation has existed for well over a hundred years and as far as I can tell isn’t going to go anywhere regardless of how much you change with regards field size or number of fences jumped.
The number of fallers this year, four, was actually very low considering 40 horses set out in the race. The number of unseats (and thus loose horses running around) was fairly high however.
As for fatalities, which I think most believe is the real issue here and the one that the sport wants to and needs to reduce has come down in the last ten years having been above 2% for every period from 1973 until 2013, it was just 1.25% from 2013-2023 (thank you to Jason Brautigam on Twitter for pointing this out to me).
I’ve seen various ideas mooted on social media including reducing the field size (a perennial favourite when it comes to the National), adding in a practice jump, putting a smaller jump in before the current first, axing the parade in front of the stands, moving the start closer to the first fence, standing starts, changing the time of the race.
I would suggest a few of these would help, again thanks to Jason Brautigam for pointing out that the National hasn’t always been a thriving 40 runner steeplechase, indeed between 1990 and 1999, 40 went to post just twice (1991 and 1992) with a low of 27 for Rough Quest’s victory in 1996 though that looks to be an anomaly given 35 ran in 1995 and 36 in the Monday National of 1997.
I’ve touched briefly on the Velka Pardubicka which has four qualifying races which domestic runners must finish in order to qualify for the main race itself.
These work particularly well and take place through the season (May, June, August, September, with the main event in October).
I think they could be one possible solution assuming that people think the difference in the fences is an issue for some horses compared to park fences.
The racecourse already stages December’s Becher Chase and a meeting in October – add in a January meeting and one at the start of March, each staging a race over the Becher course and distance to give Grand National runners an idea of what they’ll be facing with the top 8 for example in each race qualifying and exemptions for the top 8 in the Grand National itself the previous year.
While I like the above as an idea I’m sure it’s highly unlikely to happen and that changing the existing race in some way is more likely.
My preference would be to start by removing the enclosure near the first fence. The 5pm start means that punters have had all day drinking and socialising etc before the big race starts.
Removing the general public from around the first fence will lead to a calmer environment for the horses, less distractions and shouting etc.
Another option I like is to move the start closer to the first fence and to combine that with a standing start.
We’ve all seen the carnage at Cheltenham when the walk-in starts and can lead to two or so false starts and the jockeys having to all line up etc.
Lets go with standing starts for the 40 runner Grand National, there’s a good 200 metre run to the first currently and plenty of opportunity for the runners to build up steam.
Moving the start to beyond the Melling Road would give the runners less of a chance to build up speed and would hopefully see more jockeys giving it a few fences before worrying about position.
The fact that there’s no incentive to race wide in such a big field, unlike when there was a drop at Bechers Brook is another issue but short of putting the drop at Bechers back in, or at least raising the ground on the outside so the fence is smaller that side it’s difficult to know what can be done.
Above all else I think it’s important that all racing fans continue to get behind the safety measures put in place and support the BHA and Aintree Racecourse in making sure that the race continues to improve safety wise while also maintaining its reputation as both the greatest test in horse racing and one of the biggest sports events around.